How Notions of Intelligence Shape Diversity

A study reported in the January 16, 2015 issue of the journal Science explores why certain industries and academic fields struggle to recruit and maintain a diverse workforce.  Although such questions are complex, it appears that disciplines that regard ability as an innate, unteachable talent tend to attract predominantly Caucasian and male candidates, while fields that recognize that progress is possible for anyone through sustained effort tend to have much more diverse populations.  As other researchers have reported, these disparate notions of ability can also have profound effects when it comes to motivating and retaining people already working in those fields.   Employers may wish to be mindful of these notions as they refine their strategies for promoting and maintaining diversity in their workforces; as I discuss below, such concepts can apply to management practices beyond recruitment, including performance evaluations and critical feedback.

This study started with the observation that although most discussion about the representation of women in academia focuses on underrepresentation in the natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, individual disciplines actually differ widely in female representation.  In the United States, women account for about half of all Ph.D.’s in molecular biology and neuroscience (as well as half of those pursuing law degrees), and 70% of Ph.D.’s in fields such as psychology and art history, but fewer than 35% of Ph.D.’s in economics and philosophy, and fewer than 20% of Ph.D.’s in physics, computer science, and music composition.  To understand these disparities, the researchers surveyed 1820 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 academic fields, including mathematics, statistics, archaeology, computer science, art history, music composition, philosophy, classics, and economics.  Scholars were asked, among other questions, whether being a top scholar in their field required a special aptitude that just can’t be taught.  They were also asked whether they thought others in their field agreed with that view.  The researches had predicted that the more a field valued innate “giftedness”, characterized in this way, the fewer female Ph.D.’s there would be in the field, and the study bore out this correlation.  The researchers also tested competing explanations for the gender disparities with their survey, such as willingness or ability to work long hours, whether there was a correlation between gender and aptitude, and the extent to which certain disciplines required either the ability to empathize or systematic and abstract thinking; none of these competing hypotheses could explain the gender distributions in these varied fields, or serve as a significant predictor of female participation.

As part of the same survey, study participants were also asked to evaluate the statement, “Even though it’s not politically correct to say it, men are often more suited than women to do high-level work in [discipline].”  The researchers found that disciplines that emphasized innate talent were more likely to endorse the idea that women are less suited for high-level scholarly work in their field, and higher endorsement of this idea was associated with lower female representation.  Disciplines that valued talent over dedication rated themselves as less welcoming to women, and fields that viewed themselves as less welcoming had fewer female Ph.D.’s.

The researchers also examined correlations to race, and found that African Americans were less well represented in disciplines that believed innate talent was essential to success;  they speculate that the uneven racial and gender distributions in certain disciplines may partially be explained by stereotypes that discourage entry or progress for minorities, and conclude, “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 sustained effort for top-level success in their field.”   The authors do not suggest how their colleagues should implement this advice.  However, I’d suggest that some of the most obvious opportunities for implementation may arise in the recruitment process, the orientation process, and during performance evaluations.  To see why, it may be helpful to place the results of this study in the context of existing research.

This study’s conclusion coincides closely with the recommendations of educational psychologist Carol Dweck in Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development.  Dweck examined factors that encouraged students to embrace challenges and strive for mastery, rather than giving up at the first setback; one of her findings relates to the students’ own conception of intelligence.  Those students who thought of intelligence as a monolithic trait– you either have it, or you don’t – felt confident as long as things were going well, but tended to panic and give up when things became difficult; they explained their mistakes in terms of their lack of ability, a seemingly irremediable problem.  In addition, students who thought of intelligence as a monolithic trait tended not to seek out challenges or to take risks, because failure would tend to undermine their “intelligent status” and expose them as frauds or pretenders.  By contrast, students who thought about intelligence not as a status or trait but as a bundle of strategies to be applied in different situations tended to be much more comfortable with mistakes, which they attributed not to a presence or lack of ability, but to their failing to work hard enough or to use the best strategy – problems that could be fixed easily and without embarrassment.  Students who approached problems in terms of applying strategies were also more receptive to seeking out challenges, and to seeing how far the strategies they knew would take them.  The lesson from Dweck’s work is clear:  to promote sustained effort and self-improvement, it’s critical to emphasize, in concrete terms, the strategies and sustained effort that will bring success, and to avoid reference to innate ability, which tends to divert students’ focus from the task itself to the agonies of self-evaluation.

Dweck’s work also invites mention of educational psychologist Claude Steele, who (as summarized in his engaging book, Whistling Vivaldi) examines the underperformance of minorities in higher education.  Steele found, among other things, that some forms of feedback and encouragement – such as prefacing criticism with generally positive comments – aren’t as effective for women and racial minorities as they are for Caucasian males.  The kind of feedback Steele found effective for all students, regardless of race, gender, or social majority status, explained that the reviewer used “high standards” to review and evaluate the student’s work but, having read it, believed the student was capable of meeting those standards, and then provided meaningful guidance for doing so.  Such feedback, Steele found, was not only helpful in its own terms but apparently effective at disrupting students’ internal concerns about bias, and so motivated them to improve their work.

The authors of the study reported in Science do not claim to explain fully why some fields are more successful than others in achieving diversity; among other things, they didn’t ask students directly why they chose one field over another.  But I think their ultimate conclusion resonates with much of the pre-existing research in this field, and should translate easily into an employment context:   mentioning “innate talent” is unhelpful, and if an employer wishes to attract and retain a diverse workforce, it should downplay discussions about talent, and focus instead on the need for sustained effort to ensure achievement in the role.  The employer should also publicize the specific and teachable strategies and techniques that newcomers will need for long-term success.  Such efforts could take a number of forms:  replacing references to talent or ability in position descriptions and job postings with references to a commitment to high standards of excellence or willingness to acquire and master complex skills;  designing employee orientations to make sure that the employee is familiar with accepted techniques for accomplishing standard tasks and has the resources to apply them effectively; and evaluating and coaching employees for improvement using methods that make clear that high external standards of performance are being used and that the employee is either meeting those standards or can meet those standards with additional effort in specific areas.  It would be unrealistic to expect such measures to have an immediate effect on recruitment, especially in companies or industries with historically low female or minority representation, but a growing body of research such as that reported here suggests that, over the long term, these practices can bring employers closer to achieving their aspirations for a more diverse workforce.

This post was written by : John Keil

About the author : Mr. Keil is a partner at boutique labor and employment law firm Collazo Florentino & Keil LLP.