No more genius

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Robbert Dijkgraaf fears that his own enthusiastic stories about brilliant minds may deter girls from entering a career in science or technology. Read his column, which was published in NRC last Friday (our translation).


Why are there so few women in tech? This old question was brought into focus again by an incident at internet mogul Google this summer. Young software engineer James Damore wrote a memo attempting to use scientific arguments to show that his company's attempt to recruit more female technicians was impeded by a mountain of 'biological facts'. Evolution would be responsible for women being less suited for the computer industry, because they are more interested in people than in things, more social and artistic, and less capable of dealing with stress.

The debate went viral immediately, often disregarding Damore's disclaimers - personally, he said he was in favor of more diversity and his conclusions were just statements about averages, not about individuals. Google's highest boss responded by firing him on the spot.

Damore's analysis is an example of cherry picking. For instance, there is a huge difference between interest and skill. Study after study has shown that, on average, women are at least as good at math and coding as men. In 70 percent of the countries, girls are better in school then boys, both in the humanities and in science. It is a fact that generally women are more interested in people than in things, but is unclear whether this is an argument for or against technology and science. In the modern work environment, and especially in research, teamwork is becoming more important and many quantitative methods focus on the complexities of human interactions. It is called social media for a reason.

The computer industry does have some explaining to do. Most scientific fields can show progress made in the past years in gender balance. Both in the USA and in the Netherlands, the amount of women studying science and technology at university is around 40 percent, where it was about 10 percent in 1970. But halfway this period, it went downhill for computer sciences halfway: in America, the amount of female graduates getting has plummeted to under 20 percent, after a preliminary peak of 35 percent in the early eighties. The computer world, especially in Silicon Valley, has the reputation of being especially misogynistic. In the Netherlands, just 10 percent of IT workers is female.

The fact that gender differences vary enormously between cultures, regions and era's makes the biological claims questionable. Self-image has proved to be an important factor, both that of the individual and that of the field. Princeton-based philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie investigated what is deemed necessary for success within a discipline. She distinguished talent versus hard work. Leslie found a correlation between the idea that innate genius is needed and the lack of female colleagues. The scientific disciplines score especially high on the genius scale, but subjects such as Classics and Economics also place a relatively large emphasis on talent. On the other side of the spectrum we find subjects such as Educational Sciences, Psychology and Biology, which emphasize the value of hard work. It is striking that the most 'genius' study, well above number two, Mathematics, is Leslie's own discipline: Philosophy. In the 1980s, Princeton philosophers even spoke about the beam - the light beam or headlight. The lucky ones (mostly men) who carried this imaginary lamp on their heads lit up everything they looked at.

You can definitely question this results. Correlation is not automatically causality. But at the very least it shows that disciplines should be aware of the self image they project. My own enthusiastic tales of brilliant minds and their scientific discoveries could be daunting for girls and women, even when the stories are about Marie Curie.

Further research, by Leslie and others, shows that this image is embedded very early in children's development. The most extreme caricatures seem to be formed between the fifth and seventh year, largely beyond of the reach of information campaigns. At the moment girls make their first calculations, they are already behind. At around age six, 75 percent of them think girls do not do mathematics. The extracurricular environment of media, advertising, parents and peers has already implemented the stereotypes.

Possibly, the internet giants play a double role in the creation of this image. One of the reasons named for the striking decline of female computer scientists since the 1980s is the rise of the PC and the corresponding advertisements aimed at geeks and nerds. It is this culture, not nature, that deters women. Technology companies must certainly change their own work environment. But they can also actively improve the image, especially at this time when the internet creates the all-pervasive digital atmosphere in which children grow up. Move over Steve Jobs, with your Genius bar.

Professor Robbert Dijkgraaf is the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.