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Marissa Lingen

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Fields of brilliance [Feb. 7th, 2015|05:45 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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.)

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: davesmusictank
2015-02-07 10:53 pm (UTC)
Well being a scientist is cool and being a science fiction writer is just as cool.
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[User Picture]From: landofnowhere
2015-02-08 02:31 am (UTC)
The X axis label there is tricky, and tripped me up for a bit -- although they look like they could be percentages, they actually aren't -- they're "# of uses of term per million words of text". So the fraction of evaluations that actually use the term is actually pretty small.

This might be cheering news to people concerned that their students haven't been referring to them as "geniuses" on their evaluations. Although, actually, as a Math PhD, my instinct is that if a student is using the word "genius", it's probably a negative evaluation (of the "I'm sure she's a genius, but she can't teach" type -- although "you have to be a genius to take the class" is another possibility). And indeed -- math is the field where the word "genius" is most often used in negative reviews, and for women in math, the word "genius" is used twice as often in negative reviews as in positive reviews. (For men, the difference is smaller, but the word "genius" is still seen more often in negative reviews.)

Anyway, it's a really nifty tool (Ben Schmidt does a lot of awesome visualization!) I do wish it had error bars -- for less common words (e.g. "penguin"), the differences are probably mostly noise, though I'm totally willing to believe that CS is the field with the most penguins!
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-08 04:08 am (UTC)
Oh whew! That was indeed a not-very-well-labeled axis.
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