Female geniuses: Where are they?

11May09

Here’s a quick exercise: Name the top 5 physicists of all time. Now if you’re like me, chances are that all the names you picked are male. 

There are many proposed reasons for that. Society, until very recently (and some might argue even that), hasn’t been very encouraging of women in the sciences, so it seems quite plausible that women have been denied the required education/training/opportunity to reach a high level of achievement.  Perhaps women’s high achievements have simply been belittled or ignored. Worse still, perhaps men refused to give credit to a woman (a la Rosalind Franklin). 

However, I don’t think the answer has that much to do with societal discrimination and traditional gender bias. It has to be more innate than that, given how even in recent times, there have been painfully few female Nobel laureates. 

Recent work on genius suggests that the idea of innate ability is misleading. It takes intense focus, and around 10,000 hours of immersion in a subject to be considered an expert. That’s 4.8 years, with a 40 hour work week. There you have it, the magic number. Genius demystified. What sets you apart is your ability to stay focused on the task at hand and just drill through. Practice, patience, persistence, perspiration are what it takes. See the New York Times article on genius. 

Genius: A Modern View

Now the ability to stay focused, it appears, shows some signs of being gender dependent. Perhaps it evolved when the division of labor first appeared in hunter-gatherer societies, when men hunted and women stayed home raising infants. Hunting requires focus, raising children requires the ability to multitask. These are both important  and necessary abilities, but only one of them is associated with genius. Stereotypes about the inability of men to multitask are common. Is there scientific truth to this stereotype? 

Consider autism. It shows up far more often in males than it does in females (refer to Simon Baron-Cohen’s work). Modern analysis of genius shows a surprising (?) link between autism and genius. Many of the geniuses you named were likely mildly autistic. 

Autism and Genius

Autism is characterized by the ability to focus, indulge in repetitive behavior, and the inability to communicate effectively. The first two characteristics are shared by many of the best scientists. And the stereotypical woman is a good communicator. 

Controversial? Sure. Over-generalized? Absolutely. But is there some element of truth to it? I believe there is. What are your thoughts? 

-Swati

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