Women less likely apply for jobs requesting a 'brilliant' candidate
Above, a woman walks past an office building at Dorotheenstrasse 54 in Mitte district in Berlin, Germany, Oct 12, 2011. Getty Images/Sean Gallup

Portrayal of “brilliance” as a male trait and putting out messages that tied success in a particular field or job opportunity to it undermines women’s interest in that opportunity, a new study has found.

According to a press release Tuesday summarizing the study published in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that women lost interest in jobs that asked for intellectual talent or brilliance, which is perceived as a masculine trait.

"These messages also undermine women's sense of how they might fit in with others — their sense of belonging in the field — and cause women to be uncertain about their chances of success," said first author Lin Bian, a visiting researcher at New York University (NYU) and doctoral student at the University of Illinois at the time of the study and now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

A series of experiments were conducted by the researchers that included both male and female university undergraduates along with a number subjects recruited using Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk,” a crowdsourcing internet marketplace tool in which individuals complete small tasks that computers are currently unable to do and for which they get compensated.

The subjects were asked about their interest in different jobs, internships, majors such as STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, humanities, social sciences and others. They were then assigned random descriptions of these opportunities. For example, some subjects were told that those career pursuits required "brilliant" or "intelligent" people. Some others were told that they were looking for "motivated" or "passionate" individuals.

The data showed that women showed less interest in career areas that were linked to "brilliance" when compared to others like dedication. Men on the other hand, did not generally show differences in interest for any of the areas considered, according to the news release.

Andrei Cimpian, associate professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and the study's senior author observed: “Signaling that one’s field, job, or company is only for the most brilliant people out there may inadvertently turn away many qualified people that happen to belong to groups that our society deems less than brilliant. Because our culture associates high-level intellectual talent with men rather than women, women exposed to messages that evoke a ‘culture of genius’ often infer that they will encounter a less-than-welcoming environment in these fields — that they won't fit in and be accepted and successful.”

He also told the online magazine Inverse: “Other variables, like modesty, didn’t really play much of a role — the stronger element was this idea that ‘I wouldn’t fit in’ and, this is where the stereotype comes in more directly, a sense that ‘I probably wouldn’t be able to succeed here,’. There are traces of this societal stereotypes that influence women to think they wouldn’t be able to succeed at some of the highest levels of companies, or in certain fields.”

Talking about how this detrimental link between stereotypes of brilliance and the messages tied to the trait that stopped women from coming forward for the opportunities, could be broken, Cimpian said: “De-emphasizing the role of brilliance in achieving success may be one way to reduce the impact of the cultural prototype of the ‘brilliant person’ on women’s interest and involvement. Our findings showed that when the same opportunities -- majors, internships, and jobs -- were described as requiring dedication and effort instead of brilliance, women’s interest remained high.”