Take a moment to name as many geniuses as you can. How many of them are men? There is something about the way we view such extraordinary thinkers that has excluded all of them who happen to be women. In a new book, journalist Janice Kaplan sets out to correct the record. The Genius of Women is a collection of stories but also a call to let go of old biases. Kaplan answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why did you write this book?
I’ve always been interested in women’s success, and I was inspired to write the book after I read a survey that showed 90 percent of Americans believe that geniuses are men. When asked to name a female genius, virtually the only name that anyone came up with was Marie Curie. It occurred to me that we tell girls now that they can be anything. But does that mean anything but a genius?
One professor I spoke to defined genius for me as the place where extraordinary talent meets celebrity. Not celebrity in a Hollywood way but in the sense of getting noticed. You can do great work, but if it’s not recognized, it can’t have an impact. Throughout history and to this very moment, women have had only half the equation—they’ve had the extraordinary talent but not the recognition. In this book, I tried to bring them some of that recognition.
How are the women in this book different from how we tend to think of geniuses?
The simplest answer is: they are women! In a deeply unconscious way, we assume that geniuses are all going to look like Albert Einstein or maybe Sherlock Holmes. We assume that a really smart woman is going to be slightly aberrant and perhaps not traditionally feminine. But the women geniuses I interviewed had multilayered lives. Most were moms, some with young children. One had been a high-ranking tennis player before she decided to go in a different direction and become a roboticist.
Whose story most surprised you?
I was surprised by so many of the stories, because we like to believe that we have conquered sexism and misogyny—but both persist. Fei-Fei Li, one of the world’s experts in artificial intelligence, has done breakthrough work teaching machines to see, and her technique has had an impact on transformative technologies such as driverless cars. But when she started, everyone told her she was wrong and not to bother. She is proof of why you need people with different perspectives creating applications. “It took a lefthanded person to create the lefthanded scissors,” Li told me. “The righthanded people had been using the righthanded scissors and never seen that the technology was lacking.”
Meg Urry was one of the leaders running the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA before Yale University lured her to become the first tenured woman physics professor there. And she soon became head of the department. In addition to being one of the most highly cited experts in her field, she has been a role model for a whole generation of rising young women scientists. It surprised me how many of the people I interviewed were still the “first woman” in their field. Hopefully, it will be a lot easier to be the second or third or 10th.
What are some common themes you saw in the stories of these women?
All of the women had enormous persistence and a core belief in their own abilities. I was very taken by Frances Arnold, who created a technique called “directed evolution,” which completely revolutionized how enzymes are created. Everyone told her she was wrong and should give up—but she persisted. “I did not doubt myself,” she told me. In 2018 she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and now her work is the gold standard. Cynthia Breazeal had the idea early on for robots that could interact with people. Everyone else at the time was thinking only of practical applications, but she forged ahead. She made the first “social robot” (which is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum) and gave people a new way of thinking about how we should use our technologies.
So many of the women were willing to stand up to a world that doubted them and look beyond gender stereotypes. They understood that labels are constricting, and they didn’t see themselves as a “woman scientist” or “woman artist”—but rather a scientist, for example, who happens to be a woman. Most had amazingly positive attitudes. I found that a lot of the women ignored bias on the way up. But once they reached the top, they did everything they could to bring other women along with them.
Did you finish this project with a different idea of what a genius is?
After two years of research, I had a much broader view of genius. The typical ways we use to measure it—such as IQ—have all been shown to be inaccurate, biased and lacking in much validity. Genius isn’t an absolute, where you are or you aren’t one. Who we consider a genius changes over time and in how that person’s story gets told. Genius needs to be nurtured, and genius needs to be recognized. We have to stop wasting the potential of so many people. If we encourage the genius of women, we will see it flourish.