Perceptions of brilliance

Little Prince's Rose at the Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan

“On the little prince’s planet the flowers had always been simple. They had only one ring of petals; they took up no room at all; they were trouble to nobody. One morning they would appear in the grass, and by night they would have faded peacefully away. But one day, from a seed blown from no one knew where, a new flower had come up; and the little prince had watched very closely over this small sprout which was not like any other small sprouts on his planet…
Then one morning, exactly at sunrise, she suddenly showed herself.
And, after working with all this painstaking precision, she yawned and said:
‘Ah! I am scarcely awake. I beg that you will excuse me. My petals are still all disarranged …’
But the little prince could not restrain his admiration:
‘Oh! How beautiful you are!’
“Am I not?’ the flower responded, sweetly. “And I was born at the same moment as the sun…’
The little prince could guess easily enough that she was not any too modest – but how moving – and exciting – she was!”
From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s tale, the arrogant flower “cast her fragrance and her radiance” over the admiring little prince, until she drove him away from his tiny planet. According to a highly publicized research (summary here), “expectations of brilliance” may drive away women from certain academic fields “whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.” Why? Because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent. To those who immediately start wondering, these results are not limited to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

A paper titled Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines shows that “the more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female Ph.D.’s”

Interestingly, the findings revolve about perception, i.e. what academics think about the importance of brilliance in their field. They neither confirm nor disprove that natural brilliance may play more important role in some fields than others.

The data reported in the paper represents a large-scale study that surveyed academics in 30 different fields. One of the statements the participants in the study were asked to evaluate was:

“Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high level work in [name of discipline].”

In a nutshell, in disciplines perceived as based on brilliance, researchers deemed that women have lesser aptitude for the field. Not surprisingly, these are also the fields with lower female representation.

One possibility (not discussed in the Science paper) is that perception of brilliance depends not only on one’s talents but also on one’s ego. The flower “began very quickly to torment him with her vanity – which was, if the truth be known, a little difficult to deal with.”
The little prince ran away because he couldn’t cope with his flower’s “poor little stratagems”. In real life, a considerable percentage of women shy away from academic disciplines that tie success to innate brilliance. A question arises whether these women may be so gullible and insecure that they, like the little prince in the story, are intimidated by others’ perceptions. According to the authors of the research paper:

“even if a field’s beliefs about the importance of brilliance were to some extent true, they may still discourage participation among members of groups that are currently stereotyped as not having this sort of brilliance. As a result, fields that wished to increase their diversity may nonetheless need to adjust their achievement messages.”

One can only speculate why the authors recommend to adjust the message rather than question the belief. Maybe it’s easier for philosophers and mathematicians to make mind-boggling abstractions than show some humility. Neither composers nor theoretical physicists are trained to exercise objectivity when accessing their own (and others’) genius. So, without investigating the veracity of the “brilliance” belief, the authors of the Science paper conclude with:

“Our data suggest that academics who wish to diversify their fields might want to downplay talk of innate intellectual giftedness and instead highlight the importance of substantial effort for top-level success in their field. We expect that such easily implementable changes would enhance the diversity of many academic fields.”

My first response was “Ouch”.
And so was the second.
The suggestion might be “easily implementable”, but would its implementation really benefit women? Call me naive, but I’d choose the honest albeit arrogant professor over someone who willingly downplays his prejudices. In the long term it’s much better to know what to expect and face it than depend on the false encouragement of politically correct pretenses.

I have no ready-made solutions, but a recent blog-post suggests a strategy that might work better in disciplines loaded with “ability beliefs”. In that post, titled A Good Little Girl a tenured female professor advises other women to adopt the self-absorbed attitude so characteristic of successful (shall I say brilliant?) academics. Here is an excerpt:

“It is entirely possible to be very successful and to be completely selfish. These people are the ones who are happy to let the likes of me— good little girls, who feel insecure about their belonging in the enterprise of science and thus want to do their share, to please, to not feel like they take more than they deserve and they deserve so little— do well more than necessary, as it benefits them…
Any recognition of warmth or fuzziness that your willingness to please and serve and make deadlines and generally play by the rules will produce for you, the good little girl, among your colleagues, takes too much of your time (the time that’s subtracted from research, family, hobbies, watching grass grow) yet is much, much smaller than the recognition than any of your self-centered colleagues gets for bringing in another grant or publishing another Glamour Mag while doing minimal service and teaching.”

This delicate point is beautifully illustrated in Harry Potter books. In Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, students are accepted and graded according to their aptitude in magic. The Slytherins feel entitled. Hermione, on the other hand, doubts her abilities although she is the top student of her year.

“Hermione did everything perfectly until she reached the trunk with the Boggart in it. After about a minute inside it, she burst out again, screaming.
‘Hermione! Said Lupin, startled. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘P-P-Professor McGonall!’ Hermione gasped, pointing into the trunk. ‘Sh-she said I’d failed everything!’”
From Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

top: ‘The Rose’, as portrayed at the Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan. Image from Wikipedia.
bottom: ‘Hermione raising hand’ from

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