Fields of brilliance

So I was reading this article about how students describe professors differently based on gender, and that part of things is interesting and deserves its own look; it’s at the very least something to keep in mind and interrogate in your own dealings with people and their work. But it’s not what jumped out at me here.

What jumped out at me is the differential in who gets described as a genius by field. So the graph in that article shows that something like two-thirds of male physics professors are described as geniuses by their students, but only about one-third of female physics professors. However, if you follow that one-third line down the graph, you’ll see that from anthropology on down the list, that’s the high point–that’s the percentage of male professors described that way, and the percentage of female professors who get given that descriptor is even less (around ten percent or lower). So what’s going on there?

There are some fields that just do not get the same cultural cachet for requiring outstanding brilliance. Professors of biology or history, modern languages or criminal justice, do not seem to me to inherently require less intelligence, less insight, less creativity, less brilliance, than professors in other fields–nor to reward it less when it does appear. But the genius musician–the eccentric genius physicist–oh yes, we know those types. Those are characters we recognize, culturally. Whereas the genius business professor?…not so much. It may be that there actually are fewer geniuses working in psychology than in chemistry, but it seems to me at least as likely that people are predisposed to see innate genius rather than hard work in some fields, and vice versa in others.

I doubt that this is immutable. I especially doubt that it’s immutable when related to gender issues–see the example of physicians in Russia, for example, how the perception of that occupation changed when it became more heavily female. Is it coincidence that biology has more women than the other sciences and is the lowest on the “percentage genius” scale? Maybe. It may also be causal one way or the other: more room for women in fields where people don’t have an idea of a genius man as central to how that field works, or less likely to rate the field in general as requiring genius if it’s full of girls. Still, the discrepancy among fields seems to me to be also interesting and worth thinking about.

I will note that when I was a physicist and people asked what I did, I often heard, “WOW, you must be REALLY SMART!” And very few people say that to me about being a science fiction writer. Possibly because they’re trying to figure out how to say, “WOW, you must be REALLY WEIRD!” politely.

(Just go ahead and say it. We don’t mind.)

(But physicists are pretty weird. Just FYI.)

4 thoughts on “Fields of brilliance

  1. Interesting, wouldn’t have considered any professors I had as candidates for the “genius” level. (But then I grew up among professors, am the son of one.) Some of them were rather inspiring, some were quite good, but none seemed up at that level to me.

  2. Off topic for this particular blog…
    I just read your story Blue Ribbon in Analog and loved it, especially the twists at the end. It grabbed my heart from the beginning and never let go. Thank you for creating such a real world and people I cared about.

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