THE ENGINES OF OUR INGENUITY
BY KREŠIMIR JOSIĆ
To date 76 people have been awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Only one of these awardees was a woman. Elinor Ostrom received the prize for showing how people can manage environmental resources often without governmental help. However, as a young woman her application to a graduate program in economics was rejected. She had been discouraged from taking math classes as a girl, and this lack of preparation lead to the rejection. She completed a PhD in political science instead, and became a legend in both fields. Things worked out well for Professor Ostrom. But how many contributions from brilliant women have been lost or remain unacknowledged? Why are there relatively few women in fields such as physics, mathematics and engineering? There is no simple answer. However, research indicates that our expectations and assumptions may play an important role. Think of someone who has great intuition, and flashes of amazing insights. Perhaps you thought of Sherlock Holmes, agent Mulder from the X-files, or a scientist like Albert Einstein. Whoever came to mind, it was likely a man. Indeed, genius, and innate aptitude are most often associated with males. For instance, there are nearly three Google searches for “Is my son gifted?” for every such search involving a daughter. Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian and their colleagues decided to see whether such expectations are related to the number of women in different disciplines. They noted that in certain fields of science and the humanities peopleassociate success strongly with raw aptitude. We expect that innate ability is essential for success in
mathematics, economics, music composition, and philosophy. The researchers found that the stronger this belief in the need for brilliance in a discipline, the smaller the proportion of women working in it. It could be that women are discouraged from entering these fields, because they are not viewed as naturally brilliant as men. A less likely explanation is an actual difference in natural aptitude. Although this is difficult to assess, much research suggests that natural differences between the sexes are not the cause. Moreover, the number of women in technical fields has been increasing for some time. A shift in our expectations is a more likely explanation than a sudden increase in the number of brilliant women that are born. Few have the ability and motivation to become truly outstanding doctors, engineers and scientists, but we all benefit from their work. Recently the same group of researchers found that stereotypes about brilliance affect girls as young as six. Young girls associate hard work and good performance in school with their gender, but believe that boys are the ones who are smart. This suggests a sobering conclusion: If we don't want to miss the next female Nobel Prize winner, we need to encourage girls earlier than we thought. Not in college, but in kindergarten.
A review of Josić's research material can be found here:
WHERE WE ARE INTERESTED IN THE WAY INVENTIVE MINDS WORK.
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