How the power of language may affect gender representation in academia
Sarah-Jane Leslie *07 examines how generalizations we make when discussing academic ability translate into preconceptions about success.
Sarah-Jane Leslie *07 examines how generalizations we make when discussing academic ability translate into preconceptions about success.
Kim Schmidt Photography

Why are there relatively few women professors in physics, chemistry, and math? Work by Sarah-Jane Leslie *07, a professor of philosophy, shows that a key culprit may be a mindset that regards innate ability as essential to succeed in those fields — and a belief that women are less likely to have it.

“Cultural stereotypes often link men with a kind of raw, unteachable brilliance. Women’s success, in contrast, is often attributed to hard work,” explains Leslie. Popular culture has given us characters like Sherlock Holmes and the brilliant student Will in Good Will Hunting, but, Leslie says, there are far fewer examples of women “who have that special spark that can’t be matched.”

Leslie’s work is at the crossroads of philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, and linguistics. She began studying generalizations in language through a traditional philosophical lens, but quickly became more interested in how the human mind processes generic language, requiring a more interdisciplinary approach. She also strives to make philosophy accessible to a broader audience with a project called Philosophical Conversations, for which she conducts online video interviews with leading thinkers in the field.

In a 2012 study, Leslie and her collaborators at New York University introduced preschoolers to a fictional, socially diverse group called “Zarpies.” Children were read either generic statements such as “Zarpies love to sing” or specific statements such as “this Zarpie loves to sing.” The results were striking, Leslie says: Children who heard the second statement saw each Zarpie as distinct. But those who heard the generic “Zarpies love to sing” were more likely to see all Zarpies as sharing societal traits. When a new trait later was introduced for one Zarpie — such as “this Zarpie can’t swim” — the children in this group were inclined to apply that trait to all Zarpies. They came to believe that Zarpies shared innate characteristics.

Next, Leslie wanted to examine how generalizations we make when discussing academic ability translate into preconceptions about success. Her research with colleagues at the University of Illinois, Otterbein University, and Princeton surveyed professors and graduate students across the country about whether they believed success in their field came from innate intellect or hard work. Preliminary results found a correlation between fields with few women — such as physics, math, and philosophy — and academics in those fields who believed that success required natural brilliance. 

Understanding the effect and impact of generic language is critical, Leslie says. “If academic disciplines want to increase their female representation, they should pay special attention to the messages they send concerning what’s required for success.”