Geniuses, stereotypes and underrepresentation

Sarah-Jane Leslie and her co-authors have done some really great work showing that fields which are thought to require genius show the lowest representations of both women and black people. We discussed this a while back, but now it’s get a ton of well-deserved attention after being published in Science.

One thing that’s interesting is the extent to which many of have sensed this as a problem for a field for quite a long time. See, for example, this post from 2010 on Seeming Smart.

Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate. And what do people associate with intelligence? Some things that are good: Poise, confidence (but not defensiveness), giving a moderate amount of detail but not too much, providing some frame and jargon, etc. But also, unfortunately, I suspect: whiteness, maleness, a certain physical bearing, a certain dialect (one American type, one British type), certain patterns of prosody — all of which favor, I suspect, upper- to upper-middle class white men.

I think it’s also notable who insensitive the smartness/genius judgments are to evidence. It makes perfect sense to say “he’s really smart, it just doesn’t come through in his papers”; or ” She’s not that smart, she just works really hard”.

[See also this and this.

It’s fantastic to have people talking about this! Maybe now we can all finally stop talking about who’s smart. (And don’t get me started on genius projects.)

4 thoughts on “Geniuses, stereotypes and underrepresentation

  1. Two things I’ve concluded about such practices and issues, which are ways to understand even on “mainstream” grounds, I think, are artfully expressed by Jon Cogburn in the comments on But also, ironically, in popular culture in the works of, say, Ani DiFranco.

    1) When criticism are harsh in the above ways we need to remember that the problem is with the character development of the critic, not the actual thing or person they are wont to criticize. As Jon Cogburn states, “The question is, why do philosophers tolerate this situation? Why do we attend so closely to the squeakiest hinges? We could insist on basic civility, but we choose not to by valuing many, many people who fail to consistently achieve it.” It doesn’t take a philosopher to understand this, though. From popular culture, as Ani DiFranco has sung, “I don’t make myself look better by putting others down” (or something like that–looking for the song of these lyrics but can’t find them right at the moment).

    2) When criticisms entail accusations of stupidity, incompetence, or general moral turpitude, often they lack an argument that takes the reality of the person into consideration, instead assuming that the “norm” is an agreement about the possibility and existence of objective judgment, which, auspiciously, the critic happens to have achieved. To the extent that others buy into this, without much pushback, the critic is allowed, in a way, to engage in the fallacy of “hand waving”, which, of course, requires no explanation because everyone already knows it is true, or it is “self-evident to any reasonable person” in some way. Again, Joh Cogburn speaks to this phenomenon as well: “I have heard several philosophers argue that rudely dismissing ideas you consider sub-par is almost a moral imperative, lest the bad ideas spread and infect others through want of a sufficiently devastating criticism.” But dismissing an idea is not in itself actually providing a sufficient criticism, is it?

    And again, from popular culture and the works of Ani DiFranco:

    “I just sing
    what I wish I could say
    and hope somewhere
    some woman hears my music
    and it helps her through her day

    ’cause some guy designed
    these shoes I use to walk around
    some big man’s business turns a profit
    every time I lay my money down
    some guy designed the room I’m standing in
    another built it with his own tools
    who says I like right angles?
    these are not my laws
    these are not my rules

    I’m no heroine
    I still answer to the other half of the race
    I don’t fool myself
    like I fool you
    I don’t have the power
    we just don’t run this place.”

    Ani DiFranco, “I’m no Heroine”,

    Love the focus on this topic in specific!

  2. Anon, I didn’t read the paper carefully but it struck me as having the same large flaw that a number of these no-discrimination pieces have. The flaw is this: there are a number of variations in acceptance that are extremely important. Typically women get the better alternatives at a much lower rate than men do. E.g., women ph.d in physics may endup disproportionately in lower ranked programs. They are:

    1. Quality of school. Mit, Caltech, Best of the Ivies? Really good state university? Average state university? Third rate school? Or even worse?
    2. Amount of financial help. Full scholarship? Easy TA? Labor-intensive TA? Partial financial help? No help?

    Having seen a stellar woman, well published, socially adept and experienced at teaching, get only one offer (from a school worse than mine) very recently, I want to urge people to beware of general statistics in these cases.

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