The Frequency of “Brilliant” and “Genius” in Teaching Evaluations Predicts the Representation of Women and African Americans across Fields | PLOS ONE | March 2016
Women and African Americans—groups targeted by negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities—may be underrepresented in careers that prize brilliance and genius. A recent nationwide survey of academics provided initial support for this possibility. Fields whose practitioners believed that natural talent is crucial for success had fewer female and African American PhDs. The present study seeks to replicate this initial finding with a different, and arguably more naturalistic, measure of the extent to which brilliance and genius are prized within a field. Specifically, we measured field-by-field variability in the emphasis on these intellectual qualities by tallying—with the use of a recently released online tool—the frequency of the words “brilliant” and “genius” in over 14 million reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, a popular website where students can write anonymous evaluations of their instructors. This simple word count predicted both women’s and African Americans’ representation across the academic spectrum. That is, we found that fields in which the words “brilliant” and “genius” were used more frequently on RateMyProfessors.com also had fewer female and African American PhDs. Looking at an earlier stage in students’ educational careers, we found that brilliance-focused fields also had fewer women and African Americans obtaining bachelor’s degrees. These relationships held even when accounting for field-specific averages on standardized mathematics assessments, as well as several competing hypotheses concerning group differences in representation. The fact that this naturalistic measure of a field’s focus on brilliance predicted the magnitude of its gender and race gaps speaks to the tight link between ability beliefs and diversity.