Brilliance, or being brilliant, is a trait we usually assign to men. Brilliance bias is a stereotype which has been consistently recorded across countries and regions. It is an unconscious bias most of us hold, and can recognise if we are explicitly confronted with it. However, implicit biases can also be harmful.
Brilliance bias is especially prevalent in work and professional settings. In 2019, a study by McKinsey & Company concluded that whilst men are typically hired based on potential – what we believe they can do – women are typically hired and promoted based on what they have accomplished.
A 2016 research covering 14 million reviews of university faculty members found that students were two to three times more likely to use the words brilliant or genius to describe professors who identify as men than professors identifying as women. It also found that the professors most likely to be called one of those terms were in fields like physics and philosophy – fields with relatively few women and Black professors.
Brilliance bias is highlighted as one of the reasons women are underrepresented in careers where high intellect is considered essential to success, such as science and technology. In 2015, women were equally represented as men in US PhD programs in molecular biology and neuroscience. Meanwhile, less than 20% of PhDs in physics and computer science were earned by women. Not surprisingly, these two disciplines are commonly associated with brilliance.
In countries that have actively worked on recruiting young women to study these subjects, like the Scandinavian countries, this brilliance bias continues to manifest itself with respect to entrepreneurship. A recent report based on data from 2019 found that whilst all-women startup teams received just 1.3% of available venture capital, 93%, was picked up by all-men teams.
As evident from these examples, we tend to underestimate women (or overestimate men). Next time you evaluate someone, try to be aware of the words you use and reflect on why you feel inclined to use them. Maybe it’s brilliance bias?