Why are there so many female geniuses?
The recent publication by Scientific American of an article called “Where are all the Female Geniuses?” sent me digging through the Internet looking for some answers. After some research, I can only conclude that they didn’t look for them very hard.
I stumbled over a 2007 article by A.N. Wilson called “Only men can be geniuses… but there are far more stupid men than women“. I certainly disagree with the first part of the title, but the rest of the article is a classic illustration of the second part.
Wilson doesn’t actually bother to define genius. Curiously, neither does Scientific American. A careful reading of the article suggests that it is considered as giftedness plus opportunity to excel plus recognised achievement.
Wilson bases his argument on one sketchily reported study from Edinburgh University, which concluded that while there was no mean difference in scores, “When scientists measured the intelligence of more than 2,500 brothers and sisters, they found a disproportionate number of men in both the top 2 per cent and the bottom 2 per cent”. Wilson was happy to launch from this rather wobbly platform into a sea of rhetoric about woman’s proper place in the world.
What neither Wilson nor the Daily Mail bothered to note were some qualifiers in the original abstract. The data was from one 1979 dataset. The test applied was the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), from which the briefer Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) scores can also be derived. This test has been challenged in the past for its potential gender bias, and ASVAB itself notes concerns about the test’s fairness.
Subsequent research does seem to support the view that there is more variability in male intelligence, but nothing to back up Wilson’s claim that “the quality which we call genius would appear, by some ineluctable fact of nature, to be a male quality”.
Ineluctable. Right. Fortunately, the SciAm authors cite several studies to conclude that there is really no gender difference in giftedness or creativity.
So there doesn’t seem to be an inherent difference in giftedness. What else is going on?
Having ruled out nature, what about nurture? The Gifted Development Centre in Colorado, for example, while reflecting on 30 years of operation, noted that “parents are more likely to bring their sons for assessment and overlook their daughters”. Geniuses seem to start young. Look at Mozart for example. How much of Mozart’s precocious fame came from his natural talent and how much from the devoted attention of his father Leopold? Suite 101‘s observation is telling: “As was customary those times, Leopold devoted much more energy nurturing his son’s talents than those of his daughter’s”.
Access to the professional world
Wilson says: “There are precious few female inventors, almost no good female engineers, and next to no creative women in any area of the visual arts.” Why? Well, apparently, “The truth is that they have had their chance to excel, and in spite of well-meaning people everywhere trying to give them the chance, the female Rutherford, the female Shakespeare and the female Richard Wagner have simply not appeared.” We’ll just ignore the women responsible for Kevlar, COBOL, Liquid Paper, smoke detectors, the Brooklyn Bridge, DNA, the atomic bomb, and the 43 women who have won the Nobel Prize. Let’s have a good look at this “chance to excel” instead.
Women have clearly had lots of chances at education. The University of Oxford was exclusively male until 1879, and female students were not permitted to matriculate and obtain a degree (in any subject) until 1920. Melbourne Law School (my alma mater) admitted Flos Greig in 1897. In 1905, she became the first woman admitted to practise as a lawyer in Australia. Harvard Medical School accepted its first female enrollee in 1945. Cambridge accepted women from 1948. Harvard Law School held out until 1960.
Saudi Arabia did not even have a girls’ primary school until the 1960s. Women are still not admitted to engineering, law, pharmacy, geology, petroleum, and political sciences, receive a lower standard of teaching and do not enjoy full access to university facilities.
In Iran, women are still barred from attending more than 80 degree courses, including engineering, nuclear physics and computer science, English literature, archaeology and business.
But despite these challenges, according to the OECD, young women are five percentage points more likely than young men to become better educated than their parents (40% compared with 35%), while young men are more likely than young women to have lower educational attainment than their parents (15% compared with 11%).
Science, engineering and academia
Wilson says: “Very few truly original scientific discoveries have been made by women.” See the list above. But how much access did women really have to the scientific world? Take the Royal Society for example. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is one of the oldest and most prestigious scientific organisations in the world. However this noble society did not admit female fellows until 1945. The Académie des Sciences in Paris admitted its first female scientist (physicist and mathematician Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat) in 1979. Even Marie Curie, the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes, was not permitted to become a member. Perhaps, like Mr Wilson, the Académie des Sciences did not think the discovery of radioactivity was “truly original”.
SciAm concluded that the ongoing disparity in female academic accomplishment arose from family or work-life preferences. In other words, women choose not to invest in becoming geniuses. Interesting view. Unfortunately the same Ceci-Williams study cited by SciAm has been heavily criticised elsewhere. SciAm also ignored a 2007 report by the National Academies Press on the status of women in academic science and engineering that concluded: “It is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women. ” This study had a number of important findings:
- The drive and motivation of women scientists and engineers is demonstrated by those women who persist in academic careers despite barriers that disproportionately disadvantage them.
- Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering.
- Evaluation criteria contain arbitrary and subjective components that disadvantage women.
- Structural constraints and expectations built into academic institutions assume that faculty members have substantial spousal support. The evidence demonstrates that anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a “wife” is at a serious disadvantage in academe.
A 2012 study (also ignored by SciAm) found that in a randomized double-blind study, faculty participants would rate a male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant, where the only differentiator was name. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. What does this have to do with lifestyle choices?
Despite Amelia Earhart, and more than a thousand women pilots who served in WWII, the first female pilot for a scheduled US carrier (Emily Warner) was not hired until 1973. This was after six years of lobbying the airlines. The first woman to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence in Australia did so in 1935. However the first female pilot for a passenger airline was not employed until 1980, and then only after successfully pursuing an anti-discrimination case as far as the High Court.
The Royal Academy of the Arts, founded in 1768, included two women artists among its founding members. However, women were excluded from holding any office within the organization and from assuming lectureships or attending life classes. Full rights of membership and access to all classes were not granted until 1936.
As late as the 1960s, women were largely excluded from professional journalism. It took a class-action suit against Newsweek to increase the number of women writers and editors to one-third. The genre of magazine writing remains male-dominated, as shown by the byline counts.
So “few” geniuses?
So, in closing, women have had their still-limited and unequal access to the genius-level world for less than a century. How have any made it to the top of their profession? Barbara Kerr found that the overriding key factor for success among the eminent women she studied was that they all decided at some point in their lives to ignore the limitations of traditional sex roles and charge ahead to meet their dreams.
The question isn’t “Where are all the female geniuses?”, it’s “How have so many made it?”.