Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

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