By Chris Aftzidis & Paula Victoria Menshikoff, Junior Researchers
Are you ever out by yourself in public and you start imagining what lives the people around you are living? What their hobbies and interests are, whether they have a partner or kids, or what kind of job they could be working. Often, that is just a way to pass the time but what we don’t realise is that some these assumptions could be influenced by our intrinsic biases. Oh, this person is reading a book, they must be smart.
That particular example is pretty harmless since it does not influence the observed person’s life in any way. However, there are lots and lots of biases that are not harmless and impact how billions of people go through their daily lives.
In this research, we want to go deeper into brilliance bias. By our own definition, it is the tendency to think of brilliance or genius as a male characteristic. But… Why does it matter?
A dive into the past
Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician who wrote an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s. However, things did not come easy for her. Her ideas about computing were so ahead of time, that it took nearly 100 years for technology to catch up. Ada theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. She was a woman, and because of that she struggled to be taken seriously.
Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
Being perceived as female while growing up changes how we experience life. And even though one of us does not identify that way anymore, it has still fundamentally shaped how we perceive the world and are perceived by others. As is typically the case with any form of discrimination, biases based on gender become easier for us to see, which becomes noticeable in conversations with people more privileged in that regard.
To make the comments we have heard throughout our lives a bit less depressing to look at, we made them into a word cloud:
“Maybe it’s not about gender, but their personality.” But which came first? Did we get socialized into behaving a certain way or is our personality pre-assigned? And, if the latter is the case, what about people whose assigned gender at birth does not match their experienced gender? We personally believe that biology may play a role in our personality traits, but it is just part of a whole. As the evolutionary theory suggests, our personality comes from an environment that favours certain traits over time. So, if our environment favours brilliance in boys and traits like kindness in girls, that will likely influence their confidence in pursuing “brilliant” careers in the future. (Saracho, 2023)
According to the Journal Science, the older children get, the more they tend to associate men with jobs seen as “brilliant”. This shows that assumptions around intelligence being linked to gender is not something they were born with but rather something they were taught. In other words: nurture rather than nurture.
We like to describe this way of thinking with “Brilliance Bias”: the idea that brilliance is a trait belonging to men.
Our research journey
Our research aims to investigate those perceptions, specifically the ones concerning gender, in order to identify them and inspire people to think more critically about the way they perceive gender.
The first half of this research period was harder than we expected it to be. Data on this topic is very sparse and since we are quite new to the research field, it was hard to find the right resources to get us started. But we now know which direction we want to take our research in, which will make the second half a lot easier.
Our end goal
A huge part of why we are interested in this project is our own curiosity. We are aware that we are going to have a harder time in academia because of our gender, and we would love to make our experiences more understandable for others. Furthermore, we are really interested in getting new insights on this topic and getting different perspectives than our own. By difference perspectives we don’t mean those that disprove our own, since our research is structured in a way that aims to confirm our own experiences. Rather, we want to get the perspectives of other people disadvantaged by gender, that experienced academia differently from us, e.g. because of their race etc., so that we can use them in addition to our own.
As we mentioned before, it is hard to find data on this topic and we hope that we can help fill that gap.
How we are going to get there
Our initial idea was to build a network depicting references in academic papers. We wanted to analyse whether there is a difference in how different genders reference each other. But as the direction of our research became clearer to us and we decided to set our focus on brilliance bias, we also realised that the network would not help us with trying to investigate that.
Researchers from the ETHOS Lab gave us the idea of looking into course evaluation surveys here at ITU. That way, we can get insights into how students evaluate professors directly here at ITU. We want to see if professors are being more harshly judged depending on their gender, as well as analysing the language used when talking about those professors. The hard part with that is that the data is not publicly available, i.e., we will have to ask professors to make their course evaluations available to us which might influence the kind of data that we get.
Additionally, to that analysis, we are going to conduct interviews about experiences within academia with both students and faculty here at ITU. This is both for our understanding and to combine the results of our analysis with lived experiences.
We are also planning to give our interviewees little snippets from the course evaluations and have them create a profile of the person it is about.
WYSIATI: What you see is all there is.
The WYSIATI theory that says that our brains can confidently form conclusions based on limited evidence (Kahneman, 2011). We readily form opinions based on limited information, and then are confident in those opinions.
So, if you are ever out in public imagining what lives the people around you are living, remember that this game that you are playing whenever you want to kill time could be more dangerous than you think. It is important to acknowledge that we have these intrinsic biases and work on them together in order to have an improved society that is enjoyable for everybody.
Bian, L., Leslie, S.-J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aah6524
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Saracho, O. (2023). Theories of Child Development and Their Impact on Early Childhood Education and Care.