Myths about ‘talent’ disadvantage women in science

According to the researchers, male students are more likely to be perceived as brave and curious "artists"—whereas women are perceived as fragile "organizers." (Credit: Getty Images)

Lecturers and students in natural science programs perceive “talent” to mean asking quirky questions and being confident and playful, a study finds.

Men most frequently fall into that category, according to the researchers.

“Students who are well-prepared and meet learning objectives but do so in a way that their lecturers don’t find as exciting as when they are asked golden and quirky questions, are typically not recognized as talented. While appreciated as diligent, they are largely invisible,” says Henriette Holmegaard, an associate professor in the science education department and one of two researchers behind the study. The study appears in the book Science Identities (Springer, 2022).

According to the researchers, a sorting mechanism is at play during teaching, where students are divided into those with and without talent—a mechanism with a gender bias. This means that more female than male students are seen as lacking “the right stuff.”

“Lecturers report that when students ask questions, some of the men’s questions are simply much more exciting than those of the women. And if the women try, they risk being considered unauthentic or strategic—as if it was not natural for them to do so,” says Bjørn Friis Johannsen, a former researcher in the science education department who is now at University College Copenhagen.

According to the researchers, male students are more likely to be perceived as brave and curious “artists”—whereas women are perceived as fragile “organizers.”

One male lecturer in the study said: “Many of the girls keep from going for the PhD because it overwhelms them. I mean, they become paralyzed with stress because they’re so dutiful. But Christ they are a bunch of good girls to bring on a field trip to make databases and such. But they refrain from thinking new and exciting thoughts and from writing papers because they say, ‘But it stresses me out right away’.”

The researchers see a major problem with perceptions like the ones exemplified in the quote above. Not least because one is dealing with the opaque expectations of students:

“It’s unfair because we outline sets of rules and goals while rewarding other types of behavior. Besides grades, there are many other ways of bestowing privilege upon students. These can include more time with lecturers, invitations to participate in research projects, student assistant work, or even an appreciative nod during a lecture,” says Johannsen.

According to the researchers, the notion of what constitutes a talented student in the sciences is often passed down from lecturers to students. There is great weight on the type of student that a lecturer can see themselves in.

“When lecturers are on the lookout for disciples, PhD students and whatever else, it is much easier to communicate with those who one can understand and personally identify with,” says Johannsen.

“The concept of the talented student becomes a reproducing set of norms, which deals with how faculty themselves arrived in their current position, during times, among people, and under conditions that no longer exist. So, it becomes somewhat retrospective—as well as chauvinistic and inequitable.”

And, not all students have equal opportunities to live up to the expectations of such behavior:

“In a way, there’s a hidden curriculum. If we expect students to be able to do these things on their own, some will do so, while others fall by the wayside. Therefore, there is both a gender and social bias in not highlighting them. Those who are able to identify the implicit frameworks ahead of time can navigate and benefit from them. So, there’s a sense that the deck is stacked,” says Holmegaard.

As a result, the researchers conclude that those who are already the most privileged, with regards to gender, social class, and race, gain favor and even more privilege.

“Asking a quirky question in class requires that a student summon more courage than their peers. Some students experience risk in saying what comes to mind—and in our study this interacted with gender. For example, the risk of being seen as someone with nothing sensible to offer. Not everyone feels comfortable being the one to share quirky thoughts and questions,” says Holmegaard.

Could it be that most men simply have character traits that are well suited to the sciences?

“The problem is precisely this myth that science is best done in such a way that parallels the way most male students are. The faculty we spoke with say that when you’re on the hunt for talent, you’re looking for people like yourself. But does it need to be the case that these ‘boyish behaviors’ are the most important qualities to have in order to be a good student?” asks Johannsen.

“Male lecturers in the natural sciences seem to reproduce themselves when they privilege certain types of student behavior—because according to our research, this is what these perceptions of talent lead to. And this is regardless of whether the lecturers are any good at science or not.”

The researchers believe that a broader framework for lecture participation should be created to help more students spread their wings and realize their potential.

“We need to open our eyes to the fact that talent comes in many forms and expresses itself in a myriad of ways. Just because some students are quieter than others during lectures and don’t ask the most challenging questions doesn’t mean they lack talent. There could be a lot of potential that we’re just not seeing,” says Holmegaard.

According to Johannsen, the solution involves creating awareness and breaking any unfortunate patterns that may exist, while at the same time broadening the search when recruiting staff.

“In practical terms, one can begin by hiring people who are experienced at dealing with marginalization, in the belief that by doing so, one can create a better research and teaching environment with lower drop-out rates, better recruitment, and general improvements with regards to how things are run,” he says and concludes:

“However, managerial and political backup is needed. Especially if the aim is to increase the number of women and increase diversity more generally in the STEM fields. Since I’m hesitant individualizing talent with the students, I hesitate individualizing the problem of talent with the faculty. To me, the problem comes from the way university is ‘done.'”

Source: University of Copenhagen