A new study shows that at even the highest echelons of academia, baseless assumptions are keeping women from being adequately represented.

The research suggests that women are missing out in top academic fields because the current set of practitioners put a lot of emphasis on the importance of being “brilliant”, and there is a perception that “brilliance” is a quality women lack.

The study – “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” – has been published in the journal Science. 

The University of Illinois and Princeton University project focused on a broad set of academic disciplines, including those in the sciences, the humanities, social sciences and mathematics.

Within these, the researchers focused on the cultural elements, reasoning that stereotypes of women's intellectual abilities might help explain why women are underrepresented in fields - such as physics or philosophy - that idolise “geniuses”.

Nearly 2,000 people were surveyed about what qualities were required for success in their fields.

Across the board, in the sciences, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields), as well as in the humanities and social sciences, women were found to be underrepresented in those disciplines whose practitioners put a premium on “brilliance”

“We're not saying brilliance - or valuing brilliance - is a bad thing," University of Illinois psychology professor Andrei Cimpian said.

“And we're not saying women are not brilliant or that being brilliant isn't helpful to one's academic career.

“[But the data suggests] that conveying to your students a belief that brilliance is required for success may have a differential effect on males and females that are looking to pursue careers in your field,” he said.

The team tested three hypotheses that might help explain women's underrepresentation in some fields:

women avoid careers that require them to work long hours;

women are less able than men to get into highly selective fields;

women are outnumbered by men in fields that require analytical, systematical reasoning

“We found that none of these three alternative hypotheses was able to predict women's representation across the academic spectrum,” Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie said.

“A strong emphasis on brilliance among practitioners of particular fields was the best predictor of women's underrepresentation in those fields.”

The researchers are still investigating whether women are actively avoiding fields that focus on cultivating brilliant individuals, or if practitioners in those fields are discriminating against women based on their beliefs about women's aptitudes. A combination of the two is certainly plausible, Cimpian said.

“There is no convincing evidence in the literature that men and women differ intellectually in ways that would be relevant to their success across the entire range of fields we surveyed,” Cimpian said.

“So it is most likely that female underrepresentation is not the result of actual differences in intellectual ability - but rather the result of perceived or presumed differences between women and men.”