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Why is there a lack of female 'geniuses' throughout history?

by Take Two®

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Picture dated 1948 showing Irène Joliot-Curie together with Albert Einstein. The Curies' daughter Irène and her husband, Fréréric Joliot, were awarded the 1935 Nobel prize for chemistry. Marie Curie and her husband, the French physicist, Pierre Curie, were the discoverers of radium and won the Nobel prize for physics in 1903. AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Close your eyes and think if you can name 10 recognized geniuses. Now, are any of them women?

Of course there are musical geniuses, like Mozart. Albert Einstein is a star in the science world, and then you have the politically brilliant like Nelson Mandela. But when it comes to geniuses who are women, the list gets pretty barren.

Sandra Upson, managing editor of Scientific American Mind, authored the article “Where are the Female Geniuses?” which examines why most of history’s revered minds are male. 

Upson explains that the guidelines used to determine a genius is actually quite a complex process, but that most psychologists really look at exemplary accomplishments to determine who would be considered a so-called genius. 

According to that definition, it would seem that there should be a long list of female geniuses throughout history, starting with Marie Curie. However, Upson posits that while most people would name Marie Curie as a noted female genius from history, there is definitely a lack of knowledge of women who might accompany Mrs. Curie on that list. Upson claims that there were many institutional barriers facing women in the past that prevented them from having the opportunity to excel in various fields. 

Women, though, were not only excluded from advanced education or professional realms, they were also accused of mental and physical frailty that hindered success. Upson mentions that by looking at certain fields that are less measured by physical involvement or institutional success, like writing for example, you can start to see larger numbers of prominent women. 

Upson adds that women have been thwarted in their efforts because of time. Time eaten by “kids, family, the usual, right? And there’s some of that still today,” Upson cites. “One of the problems here is that they talk about a leaky pipeline. At every stage, starting from early education, up through high school then to college, grad school, and on to becoming professors and so forth, there is just attrition. They lose women. These women are just falling off the track.” Unfortunately, women are in their key reproductive years in their 20s and 30s and in those same years, they are being pressured to lay the groundwork of their careers.  

However, coming up on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids gender discrimination across the board, it is clear that recently women have made strides in their contributions to society. The Olympics saw dramatic increases in female participation and women were a definite presence on the world stage. 

Despite the many steps forward socially, rigid gender roles are still internalized, Upson explains. She noted that on Twitter, a few days ago, she saw a father who posted a castigation of his child for not understanding activity classification being restricted as strictly a boy’s activity or strictly a girl’s activity.

The activities, including things like playing with Legos or playing kitchen, were identified by the child as both female and male activities, which was considered by the teacher to be a failed attempt to correctly complete the assignment.

Upson says, “It is just crazy to see and think that these attitudes of what is a male activity and what is a female activity ingrained in children early on, is just terrifying. I hope that this is not a reflection of common education practices, but who knows.”

Jenna Kagel contributed Web copy to this story.

With contributions from Jenna Kagel

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