An Emphasis on Brilliance Creates a Toxic, Dog-Eat-Dog Workplace Atmosphere that Discourages Women

A focus on raw intellectual talent may unintentionally create a cutthroat workplace culture. New research suggests women’s preference to avoid that environment may contribute to gender gaps in some fields.

The issue of gender diversity in the workplace is nothing new these days, but researchers Andrei Cimpian, Melis Muradoglu and George Newman took a deeper look into workplaces that emphasize brilliance. Brilliance, in this case, is defined as raw intellectual talent in academic disciplines such as philosophy, mathematics, and economics. Studies are proving women are underrepresented in these fields, but not because they lack intellectual ability, quite the opposite, girls make up half the gifted population in the United States. So why are women shying away from these professions?

For so long the stereotype has equated men with brilliance. The team asked academics in more than 30 fields to share their own disciplines and then they conducted two more experiments with laypeople. Some believed that brilliance was required for success in academia, while others believed these professions were a dog-eat-dog atmosphere dominated by masculinity and aggression. “To thrive or even survive in these work cultures, employees must appear tough, conceal any weakness, put work above all else, be willing to step on others, and constantly watch their backs (Vial 22).

The research suggests that it is not the lack of intellectual ability or even the emphasis on brilliance that is holding women back from these fields, but the aggressive competitive culture. Traditionally women are taught to be or are naturally honest, kind, and even cooperative. This makes this type of work environment less appealing, “potentially explaining persistent gender gaps in brilliance-oriented professions (Vial 22).

The focus on brilliance in these professions is extremely harmful. It is of great concern to academic institutions, government, and also the public. It is encouraging a rise in a negative workplace for women, and men and women alike feel that this culture makes them feel like an imposter that does not belong. The results of the “experiment illuminate possible ways to address gender gaps in fields that prize brilliance. For instance, the team asked participants to imagine they had an acquaintance who works at a brilliance-oriented company. When the imaginary acquaintance described the work environment as a masculinity contest culture, women were less interested than men in applying for a job at this company, and more likely to expect they wouldn’t belong there. But if the acquaintance described a cooperative company culture where employees “have each other’s backs,” men and women were equally interested in working there. Nothing changed in what the participants knew about the company’s emphasis on brilliance. Changing how the culture was described was enough to eliminate gender gaps in interest and sense of belonging (Vial 22).

This is not to say this is the only reason there is large gender gaps in brilliance-based positions, many factors play a role along with this, like a lack of effective role models as an example. “People often equate competition with high quality – believing that, in a battle for success, the best ideas will rise to the top. But masculinity contest cultures entail a zero-sum noncooperative mentality that does not necessarily drive excellence. Of course, competition in itself need not be a bad thing; but everybody suffers in a culture focused on attaining status and dominance at any cost. Rather than trying to revise deep-rooted beliefs about the value of brilliance, it may be more fruitful to change workplace cultures, setting strong norms that curb competition for intellectual dominance and that favor free exchange and openness” (Vial 22).

By: Beth Gray