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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Why are we more likely to call men ‘geniuses’?

Even now, women are underrated and underrepresented in STEM fields.

Illustration of a female scientist wearing a white lab coat walking toward a double-helix.illustration by hurca/Adobe Stock

On March 3 the author will speak on a panel about diversifying Boston science and tech leadership for the Globe’s Health & Biotech Week. Sign up for the free virtual event at globe.com/healthandbiotech.


Almost as long as I have been a reporter — three decades — I have heard the imperative to include more women’s voices, especially when it comes to quoting “experts.” I understood that women were underrepresented in news coverage, and liked to think I cared.

I’d had a powerful early lesson from a story I broke as a Globe reporter in 1999, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology publicly admitted that it had discriminated against the women on its science faculty. Women at MIT had been paid less and given smaller lab spaces, and men were more likely to be compensated for the kind of speeches and committee work outside the university that women did free of charge.

But the remarkable group of women who prompted the university to make its historic admission had also identified what they called “21st century discrimination” — the subtle and often not intentional ways women are marginalized over the course of their careers. As they described it to me, it was the credit not given here, the invitation to speak or collaborate not extended there, the big conferences and awards where the men who still controlled the recommendations tended to nominate men. This idea of a less visible discrimination was revolutionary, at a time when “unconscious bias” was still the subject of relatively obscure academic papers and not the workplace training now widely required.

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Still, I knew my own record would embarrass me. I liked the idea of quoting more women, but it was something I’d do in the next story. Unaware of my own unconscious bias, I told myself that I was quoting the best source, who just happened to be a man. Or sometimes I’d call a woman who’d demure and say she wasn’t the best expert, then refer me to a man.

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In the spring of 2018, I started covering women in politics. It was poised to be another “Year of the Woman,” with rage against Donald Trump driving more women to run for office, and to vote, organize, and donate to political campaigns. I’d also begun expanding my reporting on the story of those women at MIT, and the next year began full time with writing a book about them, which became “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science,” to be published this month. Since January, I have also been covering abortion for The New York Times.

The result is that I have spent the last five years talking to and quoting almost exclusively women. It now strikes me not only how easy it is, but how enriching. Readers benefit from learning about the work women do, from astrophysics to litigating for abortion rights. The unexpected and happy side effect is how much more supported I feel in my own work. It’s not just that I recognize the shoulders I stand on. I feel freer, more confident asking questions, and less worried about feeling stupid. It’s like I’ve discovered a secret community. A secret power, even.

There’s an episode in The Exceptions where a male colleague approaches Nancy Hopkins, an accomplished geneticist, to suggest that they teach a course together. Hopkins eagerly agrees, so the man approaches the head of their department, a thoughtful man who cares deeply about the quality of teaching. He rejects the idea. He recognizes that Hopkins is a strong and engaging lecturer — known for it at MIT and widely in her field. But, the department head says, undergraduates won’t accept information from a woman at the front of a lecture hall.

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“The Exceptions” by Kate Zernike will be released on February 28.Handout

The early readers of my book were shocked at this. It was 1979, the year that the percentage of women on American campuses had overtaken the percentage of men. But at the time, Hopkins herself agreed that it would be a problem. Even into the late 1990s, other female professors told me of undergraduates disputing the math they presented in lectures, something that rarely happened to male professors. (A large metastudy of student-evaluation research published in 2021 found that male instructors tend to be perceived as more accurate, more competent, and less sexist.)

The problem of not taking women seriously crystallizes in scientific fields. Studies show that even today women are underrepresented in fields such as physics and math that are assumed to require raw brilliance. Because even many women believe this myth, it has the effect of making them think they don’t belong in those fields. As of 2019, women still made up just 27 percent of the US STEM workforce, according to census data. When we think of the word “genius” we tend to think of a man; if a woman succeeds, it’s because she’s worked hard.

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My own perspective changed because my circumstances did. But I think even a small thought experiment can help.

When you listen to a woman speaking on television or in a meeting, ask yourself: Would you be taking the information more seriously if it came from a man? When we excuse obnoxious behavior in the workplace because hey, he’s a genius, and we can’t lose that talent, let’s ask, Would we tolerate this behavior from a woman?

In March 2020, as the pandemic shut so many of us in our homes, my family and I were looking for a movie my kids had not yet seen. Since I was writing my book on Nancy Hopkins and her colleagues, we decided on Good Will Hunting, the iconic movie not just of Boston but of MIT. We arrived at the scene where Will, the genius janitor from Southie, is swabbing the floors and discovers the unsolvable equation on a blackboard. He quickly sets about solving it.

“Wow,” said my older son, newly 13. “He’s Nancy smart.”

Change our perspective, and we might just change the future.


Kate Zernike’s new book, “The Exceptions,” will be released on February 28. On March 3 at noon she will speak on a panel about diversifying Boston science and tech leadership for the Globe’s Health & Biotech Week. Sign up for the free virtual event at globe.com/healthandbiotech.

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