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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Inna Ksenofontov, Alexandra Fleischmann, Rotem Kahalon, & Boglárka Nyúl

01.09.2020, by Tina Keil in grant report

Post Summer School Report; Project: "Brilliance as deviance: Gender-role incongruity as another barrier to women’s success in academic fields"

From Left: Inna Ksenofontov, Rotem Kahalon, Alexandra Fleischmann, Boglárka Nyúl
From Left: Inna Ksenofontov, Rotem Kahalon, Alexandra Fleischmann, Boglárka Nyúl

Women are underrepresented in STEM-fields and high-level academic positions. Researchers have long tried to explain these disparities, for example, with gender bias in hiring or women’s supposedly low interest in these professions (Auyeung, Lombardo, & Baron-Cohen, 2013; Reuben, Sapienza, Zingales, 2014). A new stream of research has recently suggested that beliefs about brilliance might explain some of these gender disparities. Brilliance, defined as extreme, raw intellectual ability, is stereotypically ascribed more to men than women (Kirkcaldy, Noack, Furnham, & Siefen, 2007). Accordingly, academic fields in which brilliance is portrayed as a prerequisite for success (e.g., physics, engineering) are occupied by fewer women (Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, & Freeland, 2015). Moreover, women apply less for these positions, partly, because they feel dissimilar to the people holding them (Bian, Leslie, Murphy, & Cimpian, 2018).

In our project, we proposed a new perspective on understanding and studying this type of gender inequality by investigating whether the perceived and experienced incongruity between brilliance and women might also be an effect of prescribed gender roles. Following Role Congruity theory (Eagly & Karau, 2002) and Backlash theory (Rudman, 1998), we examined whether traits associated with brilliance are incongruent with the female gender role and more strongly overlap with the male gender role. Thus, we tested whether being brilliant constitutes a larger deviation from prescribed gender roles for women than for men, reducing women’s chances for being considered as appropriate candidates in brilliance-associated professions and putting them at a higher risk of experiencing backlash compared to men.

The reasons for our assumption that brilliance and the female gender role are incongruent are threefold. First, brilliant people are often depicted as nerdy and socially awkward people (think of the eccentric, absent-minded professor; Boston & Cimpian, 2018). This stereotype is contrary to the traditional female gender role, which includes being sociable, communicative, and emotionally intelligent. Second, brilliance is associated with fields that are seen as requiring an orientation toward things and systems (i.e., STEM fields; Lippa, Preston, & Penner, 2014). This work is often perceived as isolating and competitive (Meyer, Cimpian, & Leslie, 2015). In contrast, women are expected to be communal (nurturing and family-oriented), and are viewed as preferring professions oriented towards people and caring for others (Ellemers, 2018). Lastly, brilliant people are often portrayed as physically unattractive individuals (Green & Ashmore, 1998). In contrast, attractiveness is part of the female gender role (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Societies place enormous value on women's physical attractiveness and strongly reward women who achieve these standards (e.g., Buss & Shackelford, 2008; Rhode, 2010; Wolf, 1991).

We developed a research plan to test our ideas while attending the EASP Summer School workshop on gender stereotypes led by Prof. Sabine Sczesny and Prof. Alice Eagly in Zurich in July 2018. Following the receipt of the EASP Seedcorn grant, we were able to realize our project exactly as planned. We tested the "brilliance as deviance"-hypothesis both for people's perceptions of women and women's self-perception, in five preregistered studies.

In a series of vignette experiments, we tested whether people perceive brilliance as a gendered trait. As we expected, in Study 1a (N = 108), a brilliant person was rated as more masculine than feminine. Moreover, participants rated a brilliant person as more similar to a typical man than to a typical woman, both in regard to masculinity and femininity. When we specified the gender of the brilliant person in Study 1b (N = 148), we found that a brilliant man and an average intelligent man were rated as more similar on gender-specific traits than a brilliant woman and an average intelligent woman. These findings suggest that being brilliant is indeed a larger deviation from prescribed gender roles for women than for men. Thus, in order to be perceived as brilliant, women would have to "give up" a traditional female gender role more than men would have to give up a traditional male gender role, potentially making them vulnerable to backlash.

In Study 2 (N = 380), we investigated whether brilliant women elicit more negative reactions than brilliant men. Using vignettes, we found that in work contexts (but not in romantic contexts), brilliant women were indeed more likely to receive negative reactions than men. Specifically, people were less willing to interact or work with a brilliant woman compared to a brilliant man, they liked a brilliant woman less and ascribed more negative traits to her.

While these findings overall indicate that people perceive brilliance as a male trait and react more negatively to brilliant women, our second set of studies looked at how women "cope" with this type of discrimination. We investigated whether women try to restore their traditional gender role in contexts that highlight their brilliance. Specifically, we investigated whether they try to do so by downplaying their brilliance (Study 3) and behaving in more feminine ways (Study 4), in order to escape backlash.

The results of Study 3 (a vignette and biographical study with PhD students, N = 291) and Study 4 (a lab experiment with university students, N = 242) showed that there were no differences between women and men in none of the above-mentioned behaviors. However, in Study 3, post hoc analyses revealed that downplaying one’s brilliance was related to the gender role rather than to gender per se. That is, for both men and women, being more feminine tended to be associated with more downplaying behaviors, while for women, being more masculine was associated with less downplaying behaviors.

These findings indicate that downplaying one’s brilliance is not tied to gender, but to the gender role that people endorse. Importantly, what "hinders" people most from expressing their brilliance are higher levels of femininity and lower levels of masculinity, a composition which is usually found among women. This suggests that, although society rewards women when they adhere to a traditional gender role, doing so might deter women from presenting themselves as brilliant.

Our research points to the possibility that women might be underrepresented in academic fields and positions associated with brilliance because brilliance is a gendered trait (i.e. high in masculinity and low in femininity). Hence, beliefs about brilliance not only concern intellectual ability and aptitude, but also include convictions about which personality traits are required to succeed in these fields – traits that are associated with a male gender role. Consequently, brilliance can be more easily "performed" by people who have internalized a male gender role (which are more often men than women).

A direct implication of our findings is that brilliance needs to be de-gendered. Static gender roles seem to form a barrier for women‘s success in brilliance-associated fields, but so do cultural stereotypes around brilliance. Stereotypical depictions of brilliance are still present in educational institutions, books and the media (e.g., Big Bang Theory). Although brilliant female role models have increasingly become more visible, such role models need to be close and relatable for girls and women to be able to identify with them (e.g., Lockwood & Kunda, 1997). Future research could design interventions that follow this goal.

In future studies, we plan to extend this line of research and investigate whether women perceive themselves as less brilliant than men. Moreover, we are interested in whether men have a lower threshold for what constitutes downplaying behavior because they are more used to self-promote than women, and hence, might perceive that they are downplaying their intelligence much faster than women would think that about their own behavior. With this research, we hope to continue to debunk myths about brilliance.

Inna Ksenofontov (University in Hagen, Germany)
Alexandra Fleischmann (University of Cologne, Germany)
Rotem Kahalon (Tel Aviv University, Israel)
Boglárka Nyúl (Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary)