Try this simple thought experiment. Name 10 female geniuses from any period in history. Odds are you ran out of names pretty quickly. The message is clear: something is rotten in the state of genius.

Besting most of one's species is an accident of circumstance. The sequences of DNA nucleotides, arranged just so to impart intelligence, curiosity and passion, are part of that fluke event. More serendipitous still are the conditions needed for a person to devote decades to an idea or calling, deaf and blind to the distractions bound up in being human.

That implausible scenario comes into sharp relief in the scarcity of female geniuses. The absence of women reveals the unequivocal role of culture and opportunity in the flourishing of brilliance. For centuries doubts about women's abilities, combined with social customs, limited the so-called fairer sex to household concerns. In the developed world today women's access to education and resources is essentially on a par with that of men. With the barriers to opportunity crumbling, different cultural and social forces explain why women still struggle to reach the very top of their fields. “As much as we've been able to open doors, there are huge structural differences in how men and women live out their lives,” says psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles of the University of Michigan.

Gifted women face a choice: they can pursue their interests wholeheartedly, or, in line with cultural imperatives, they can split their time and serve as the anchors of their families. The good news is that for those in whom the fires burn brightest, a choice exists—albeit one riddled with compromises. Attaining eminence will never be easy, but fixing the social inequity that still remains should lessen the trade-offs it demands of women today.

Beyond Biology

Francis Galton, the first person to study the hereditary basis of eminence, argued that a gifted man would achieve greatness as long as he “had no pressing calls on his attention, no domestic sorrows, anxieties and petty cares … no constant professional toil for the maintenance of a large family.” For men at any time in history this condition is rare—for women, nearly nonexistent.

A woman was expected to be a well-mannered complement to her husband, able to soothe his cares and those of their children. She was not someone who holed up in an office or studio for hours on end. The few women who bucked the trend did so covertly. The Brontë sisters, for example, published their novels under masculine names. Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian, noted that until the 1900s women artists were denied many opportunities to develop their craft that men took for granted, including the freedom to paint nude models, join art academies and network with patrons. These closed doors doomed women to obscurity.

Mental or physical frailty was also commonly invoked to discourage women from seeking higher education or public recognition for their work. Those debates are only now being put to rest. More women now graduate from college and enter medical school than men, and more female athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic teams this year than men.

Psychologist Lewis Terman, who in 1921 began an ambitious program of intelligence testing, reported that the three highest IQ scores in his first survey of gifted children belonged to girls. More recent work has established that, in aggregate, women and men perform about the same on intelligence tests.

A 2008 meta-analysis of creativity research reached a similar conclusion. Psychologists John Baer of Rider University and James C. Kauffman of California State University, San Bernardino, reviewed 78 studies of men and women at various ages and found that although some studies showed one gender scoring higher than the other on measures of creativity, these findings were almost always counterbalanced by experiments showing the opposite effect.

Lonely at the Top

Baer and Kauffman did, however, find a large gap in the productivity of creative men and women. Explaining the differences in creative output is now the “most significant” question, they conclude. The data suggest that early in their careers, women are pulling out of the race to eminence.

Lingering gender bias, often unconscious, may account for some of the attrition. The advent of blind auditions for orchestras, beginning in the 1970s, is one famous example of discrimination and its abatement: the odds of a female musician advancing through the early rounds of a tryout increased by 50 percent after orchestras introduced screens to conceal applicants' identities. Skewed ratios still show up in countless domains, however. Recent reports have found, for instance, that women write one fifth of the editorials in traditional media outlets and about one third of the articles in top-tier magazines and literary journals. Without data on the numbers of submissions by gender, however, the causes of disparity remain occluded.

Cornell University psychologists Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci (who is a member of Scientific American Mind's board of advisers) investigated this question in a 2011 review of studies on gender discrimination in science and engineering. They concluded that the low numbers of women in these fields exist not because of unfair practices in the awarding of grants, job offers or publication in prestigious journals. When they compared only people with similar accomplishments and resources, men and women were equally likely to receive those accolades. Instead they found the gap stems from preferences relating to family and work-life balance. Women were more likely to accept less desirable posts, which offer less time for research, often to accommodate raising a child or tending to an aging parent.

A 2009 survey of more than 8,000 doctoral students in the University of California schools bolsters this observation. Half the female respondents were “very concerned” that a career in academia might not be family-friendly, compared with a third of men. Considerably more women than men described their professional activities as being too time-consuming, incompatible with children or a partner, or geographically problematic. Fears of conflicting priorities are not unfounded—the respondents who were also mothers reported logging more than 100 hours a week on academic work, caregiving and housework; fathers clocked around 90 hours.

To further pinch ambitious women in academia, the years during which women must receive their degrees, land a job and work toward tenure (received at an average age of 39) coincide perfectly with the prime years for having children. “When we put all the studies together, what we find are that marriage and childbirth are the most predictive variables in terms of the attainment of eminence,” says psychologist Barbara Alane Kerr of the University of Kansas.

Divided Focus

Choices made for family reasons are intensely personal and often admirable—but they are not conducive to genius-level accomplishment. Rising above the rest demands single-minded devotion to one's craft. “Females still are less likely to aspire to that way of life,” Eccles says. “It means giving up just about everything else and having a supportive network so you can give up everything else.”

For women in academia, offering child care assistance and more options for slowing down the tenure process could absorb some of the temblors knocking women off the path to greatness, as a 2004 report from the Government Accountability Office advised. More broadly, Kerr suggests that women recognize the importance of timing in their major life decisions and seek parity in their relationships within the family and with colleagues. Only when gender assumptions about household responsibilities are finally washed out of the fabric of society can women face equal odds as men.

The lack of diversity in the annals of great achievement both admonishes and enlightens us about the nature of true genius. If creative potential is a new shoot poking out of the soil, successful growth depends on whether life sends in the lawnmowers or offers protective cover. As Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist and gender expert at Brown University, puts it, “what's really important is how people of high ability are nurtured, sustained and given the opportunity to fulfill their abilities.” Genius is still the product of lucky coincidences, but society need not load the dice.