Why you should care
Because men are light bulbs; women are seeds.
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When you hear the word “genius,” what first springs to mind? Whatever smarty-pants image pops into your head, it’s likely to involve a guy.
Our tendency to associate male with genius even permeates our search terms. As it turns out, parents are more than twice as likely to search for “is my son a genius” than “is my daughter a genius” on Google, according to joint research by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. And they’re also more than twice as likely to search “is my daughter ugly” than “is my son ugly.” Google probably needs a bit more information about your kids to answer that, but still, there’s an implicit bias.
It all comes down to associations and stereotypes, according to a recent study by Cornell University. Respondents were asked to choose what image best described “genius”: a light bulb turning on or a seed that is planted and nurtured to take root, growing into brilliance. The light bulb won. Gender was then introduced to the situation. Results show that, while respondents tended to associate women with the “seed” version,
They were more likely to associate the light-bulb version of genius with men.
The light bulb metaphor and its connotation of an idea suddenly rising out of thin air “really does feel like innate genius and talent,” says Kristen C. Elmore, one of the researchers behind the study. And because we tend to stereotypically associate genius with males, “it’s easier to see male ideas as light bulbs,” she notes, whereas the seed metaphor may conjure more associations with nurturing — which fits a more feminine stereotype.
These biases also show up in the way we describe mentors. In a recent study with the University of Illinois, Daniel Storage examined how frequently the words “genius” and “brilliant” appeared in reviews of professors on RateMyProfessors.com. For male professors, the terms were used two to three times more often than for females. That’s not to say that the male professors were favored overall — just referred to as “genius” more often. Storage notes that “it’s not just an overall negative bias.” For example, there’s no difference between men and women when it comes to words like “excellent” and “amazing.” However, for intelligence-based terms, it was definitely skewed toward male professors. By using data from a website anyone can submit to, the results are a snapshot of a naturally occurring cultural stereotype that “I don’t think too many people are paying attention to,” Storage warns.
But it’s also possible that the genders of the study participants or online commenters themselves could have influenced the perception of genius. That’s something the Cornell researchers think should be considered in similar studies.
Still, Storage’s findings were not limited to typically male-dominated fields, like science, technology, engineering and math; they stretched across disciplines. The reason? He thinks it’s more about innate gender bias and the way society is structured, such as the different toys that boys versus girls have. He sees toys for boys as more based in educational fields, while girls’ toys are more focused on appearance. “After years and years of being exposed to this, that influences people’s perceptions of who’s the gifted one. It really puts women at a disadvantage.”