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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

How a focus on 'brilliance' derails diversity and inclusion initiatives

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George Newman andrea Vial

What do physics, philosophy, mathematics and computer science have in common? All of these fields emphasize exceptional intelligence as a requirement for professional success. And women are underrepresented in all of them. The reason for this is not well understood, but new research published in Psychological Science indicates that the culture of these fields has something to do with it. The study showed that women weren’t only underrepresented in fields that emphasize brilliance, they had less interest in working in these fields, and were more likely to believe they would experience less of a sense of belonging if they did.

“'Brilliance’ seems innocuous enough, but it has additional connotations,” says George Newman, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Rotman, and one of the study’s authors. “Emphasizing exceptional intelligence seems like a good way to find people with great ideas, but when an organization communicates it is seeking brilliance in its employees, it also conveys ideas about masculinity-contest cultures. That leads people to disengage — to clam up and not contribute ideas.”

The concept of masculinity-contest cultures is used by social psychologists to understand environments where stereotypically masculine norms become organizational ones. These are competitive environments where workers feel they must prove themselves superior to others, where individuals feel reluctant to show their emotions, ask for advice, admit mistakes, show signs of weakness, or offer help to others. At an investment bank, that could mean creating a cutthroat culture where employees are distrustful of one another.  In an academic department, it could mean creating a culture where individuals are expected to work round-the-clock hours and non-work obligations are frowned upon.

When these types of reward structures are in place, the more negative aspects of masculinity — culture, such as aggression, extreme competition and domination over others — can become entrenched in the workplace. This has negative effects for both men and women, but is particularly detrimental for women.

The research, conducted by Andrea Vial (professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi), Melis Muradoglu and Andrei Cimpian (NYU), and George Newman (Rotman) included three experiments. In the first, researchers asked academics a series of questions about the norms of their field to determine whether it was perceived as having a masculinity-contest culture. More than 1,300 academics from a range of disciplines completed the questionnaire. The results indicated that in fields where brilliance was valued highly, respondents were more likely to identify aspects of masculinity-contest cultures.

“We observed these connections for both men and women,” says Vial, the lead author of the study.

“This held across all of the fields that we looked at, and connected with well-being. The more that respondents perceived a masculinity-contest culture in their particular field, the less they felt like they belonged. This was particularly true for women.”

The second experiment presented participants with a job ad from a fictional company that included a description of the attributes it valued in its employees. Half of the participants were presented with a description that explicitly emphasized the importance of brilliance. The other half were given a description of the skills needed for the job that did not emphasize brilliance.

Female study participants who saw the job ad which emphasized brilliance perceived the fictional company to be characterized by a stronger masculinity-contest culture, and said they would be less interested in joining the company. Participants were also asked to answer a few questions from a scale used by psychologists to identify imposter syndrome and one’s sense of belonging within an organization. Those who were shown the ad that emphasized brilliance were also more likely to anticipate feeling symptoms of imposter syndrome if they joined the company, and that they would feel less of a sense of belonging.

The third experiment showed participants a job ad that emphasized the importance of brilliance, but in this case, they were asked to imagine they had contacted an acquaintance at the organization to learn about the position. Some received a reply that communicated a masculinity-contest culture – that it was not OK to be wrong, and seeking advice was considered weak. Other participants received a reply to the opposite effect. The results were consistent with the other experiments.

“When people were asked to imagine a place where brilliance is a requirement for success, they assume this environment’s norms will be more masculine and will have these negative aspects of masculinity,” says Vial.  

“And those impressions connect with their anticipated sense of belonging and expectations of feeling like an imposter. And we see stronger effects in women in particular.”

The researchers argue that an emphasis on brilliance can undermine gender diversity by driving the perception of a negative work environment. And although more research is needed, it is also possible that similar effects could be contributing to the under representation of other groups in these fields (such as for racial/ethnic minorities).

This effect could be limiting the number of job applicants, even in organizations that are actively seeking to improve their gender diversity. But by consciously countering this perception, employers might have greater success recruiting and retaining women to brilliance-focused domains.

“The language of recruiting materials, mission statements and company communications all have downstream effects on perceptions of organizational culture,” says Newman.

“Companies could potentially use language strategically to counter these perceptions.

Are you looking for rising stars, or for people who are collaborative? If a company says it is seeking brilliant individuals, people will infer a lot more about its organizational culture, and whether they would be a good fit. Our studies show that people are making those kinds of inferences, and women in particular are less likely to apply and anticipate being less happy working there.”

Andrea Vial is an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi.
George E. Newman is an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management.