2016-10-12 14:04:13
Trilobites: Metaphorically Speaking, Men Are Expected to be Struck by Genius, Women to Nurture It

14:04, October 12 193 0

Try searching for “top inventors of all time” on Google. Start counting the images along the top of your search page, and you’ll go through 29 photos of men before you reach Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In 1942, she shared a patent for a technology to prevent enemies from detecting messages in radio signals. This “Secret Communication System” eventually led to today’s mobile phone technology and to secure military communications.

Did Ms. Lamarr have a eureka moment, like a light bulb going off? Or did she develop the idea over time, nurturing it like a seed, with great care and effort?

These two metaphors are often used to describe scientific discovery and what we perceive as genius. Along with them come ingrained, subconscious associations that may have unintended consequences, according to a study published Friday in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Researchers found that we find an idea more or less exceptional depending on the metaphors used to describe it. And not just that: Those metaphors had different effects depending on the gender of the idea’s creator.

Kristen Elmore, a developmental and social psychologist at Cornell University and lead author of the study, saw metaphors about ideas everywhere. She saw light bulbs on bulletin boards at schools and in student essays about inventions. Less frequently, young people were exposed to metaphors that describe nurturing ideas like seedlings.

Dr. Elmore and her colleague, Myra Luna-Lucero, a researcher at Columbia Teachers College, set out to study whether these metaphors carry unexplored implications. In a series of three experiments, more than 700 adult men and women, mostly in their 30s, were exposed to a variety of male and female inventors whose ideas were described as emerging like light bulbs or nurtured seedlings.

They found that people tend to rate discoveries that came about “like a light bulb” as more exceptional than those that are “nurtured like seeds.” But not when the inventor was a woman. In that case, people rated “nurtured” ideas as more exceptional.

Ann Fink, a neuroscientist and feminist biology fellow at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, says their study supports emerging evidence that harassment, discrimination and unconscious bias discourage women from breaking into male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The study, she said, shows that implicit associations affect how people judge someone’s competence in the sciences — in this case, genius.

“A really common gender stereotype is that men are brilliant,” said Dr. Fink, while “women are nurturing.” And when they don’t conform to those roles, they both suffer.

Anyone who has worked in science knows that big ideas take enormous effort. But a myth persists that ability comes from something innate, and that truly genius ideas arrive in eureka moments. This study suggests that it benefits a man to downplay how much work went into his ideas. And it benefits a woman to prove how much work went into hers.

“They’re supposed to achieve and be recognized as men,” Dr. Fink said, referring to the double standard faced by women. “But then they face a punishment if they don’t conform to gender stereotypes.”

Today you can thank Ms. Lamarr for the smartphone in your pocket. But it took decades before she was fully credited with the idea from which this technology originated — a radio wave-jumping torpedo. In 1997, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Ms. Lamarr and her co-inventor, George Antheil, a special award for their “trailblazing” work. But years later, some say her invention still doesn’t seem plausible until we learn how it slowly developed. One biographical account, “Hedy’s Folly,” describes Ms. Lamarr’s years of learning about weapons and tinkering with other inventions. Not until her work is described in the terms many of us associate with a nurturing woman can we unpack this “mind-boggling” story of how “the most beautiful woman in the world” could also be one of the world’s most important inventors.

Dr. Elmore thinks that reframing how we talk about scientific discovery could empower both women and men — and more underrepresented minorities — who may feel they don’t belong among the so-called effortless geniuses that dominate STEM fields today.

“You don’t just have to sit around and wait for a good idea to pop into mind,” said Dr. Elmore.