Ep 81: Creating Genius

Janice Kaplan, NYT Bestselling author, most recently of The Genius of Women, discusses why 90% of the population thinks only men can be geniuses. Janice and Andy cover what we can talk to and teach our girls about to empower them at a time when we need more geniuses than ever!

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Full show notes

If your daughter was a brilliant pianist—as good as Mozart, say—wouldn’t you want her to share her talent? Of course you would! You’d pay for lessons, organize recitals, and help her blossom into the artist she was born to be. Imagine the wasted potential of not motivating your teenage daughter, or leading her to believe she was supposed to be doing something else. It’d be heartbreaking. Still, this is exactly what happened to Nannerle Mozart, who was told to go home to be married in her teenage years instead of following in her brother’s footsteps.

Fortunately, something like this would probably not happen in the 21st Century. However, the sad truth is there are still innumerable obstacles facing women of all ages, from toddlers to teens, that are almost too subliminal to notice. The stigmatized expectations of women are internalized by girls at a very tender age, and without the proper guidance from parents, these perceptions can seriously hurt girls’ self esteem! They might even give up on their dreams and settle for whatever they’re told is “right” for them.

There are very few geniuses in the world, but the fact that so few women geniuses are recognized points to a deep-seated bias against women at large. To better understand how parents can protect their daughters from this bias as well as educate their sons as to make all teens wiser on gender inequality, I spoke with Janice Kaplan, author and co-author of fifteen different books, including The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World.

In this book, Kaplan dissects what it means to be a “genius” and why it is that women are often overlooked in the running. Her takeaways are a great starting place if you’re looking for ways of motivating your teenage daughteror talking to your son about these issues so he can better understand the cultural influences that shape gender inequality.

I asked Janice what inspired her to write a book championing the female capacity for genius. In her answer, Janice cited an eye-opening poll in which people were asked to name some well known geniuses––but almost none could name a female genius. The results of the poll showed that 90% of people only mentioned men as examples of geniuses, and the only woman people recognized as a genius was Marie Curie.

Why can’t people recall the names of more brilliant females? Are they inherently sexist? Of course not. It’s more complicated than that, says Janice. There are a lot of social factors that add up to create this unbalanced reality, this world in which only men are thought to be capable of genius. It’s not that women aren’t talented, but instead that they are rarely encouraged, recognized or challenged––causing them to fall short of their worth. We know that you prioritize motivating your teenage daughter, but unfortunately, the world doesn’t always do the same.

Why We Can’t Seem to Name Many Female Geniuses

Everyone knows the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The question causes us to ponder: if we don’t know about something, does it ever actually happen? Janis says this question can be applied to women’s accomplishments––if women are extremely smart and talented but no one talks about their contributions, will their genius ever be recognized? Will this make motivating your teenage daughter even harder?

In order to answer this question about motivating your teenage daughter, Janis shares a definition of “genius” which is rather thought provoking. She defines genius as “extraordinary talent, plus celebrity.” This doesn’t mean a celebrity like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, but instead someone whose work is widely recognized and respected.

For example, does the name Katherine Johnson ring a bell? Probably not! Although her name does not live in infamy, Johnson was a brilliant mathematician whose orbital calculations were critical for the first crewed NASA space flights. Unlike, say, Albert Einstein, Johnson is not a household name. This is largely because in the 60s, and throughout history, black women like Johnson have rarely been celebrated for their accomplishments, relegated instead to the background. When asked to name a genius, you can’t recall someone you’ve never heard of! No wonder motivating your teenage daughter, there aren’t enough known female geniuses.

In the episode, Janis dives into the stories of several female geniuses whose names you probably don’t know! Make sure to listen so that if someone asks you to name a genius, you’ll be able to recall the names of these brilliant women instead of allowing them to live on in obscurity.

How We Hinder Women From Reaching Their Potential

On top of not being recognized, many brilliant females are not given the encouragement to build on their talents. This is not a result of explicit sexism––we would never tell girls they can’t be doctors––but instead through small, cultural nudges that suggest women should stick to more traditional expectations. If most of the doctors a young girl sees on TV are male, motivating your teenage daughter will be more challenging since

she’s not going to believe that it’s possible for her to establish herself as a medical professional.

There are lots of small, indirect ways that these messages towards women are transmitted. Society often hyper-analyzes the way women look, constantly making them feel as though their appearance is the source of their worth. Meanwhile, men rarely face this kind of scrutiny, and are instead evaluated on their academic or athletic achievements. There’s also a lot of differences between the kinds of after school programs we offer to boys and those we offer to girls. For example, Boy Scouts encourages boys to camp, build, and explore...while Girl Scouts is motivating your teenage daughter to cook and sew.

Although these forces don’t directly tell women that they aren’t as capable as men, they teach women not to aspire quite so highly. Motivating your teenage daughter is made harder when they are told to remain in the boxes they are placed. They make women feel, often subconsciously, as though it’s wiser to have less ambition since they’ll never be able to compete with men.

Talking to Kids About Gender

The unfortunate reality about motivating your teenager daughter is that kids are taught to have these beliefs about gender, not born with them. In our conversation, Janis discusses a study that demonstrates this. When young kids were brought into the labs at Princeton and shown pictures of both a man and a woman, they were asked to identify which one was a genius. Their choices shocked researchers and might surprise you too when you listen to the episode.

Janis points at that just because society imposes certain expectations on women doesn’t mean that you should stop motivating your teenage daughter to do traditionally “girly” things like dressing up or doing their nails. These activities are fun and teach girls to invest time in themselves! It’s important, Janis insists, to also have a professional pantsuit along with a prom dress, to send your daughter to debate club as well as the hair salon. Instead of choosing between one or the other, we can teach young girls that they’re capable of being confident in their looks while also becoming CEOs.

So how can we work directly with our kids––both boys and girls––to make sure they understand the value of the female mind? What are some ways of motivating your teenage daughter to help her realize her potential? Janice and I talk all about it in today's episode, getting into the ways we can help kids grow up with a sense of equality and empowerment. We cover:
  • How Disney movies can sometimes send girls the wrong messages
  • What research says about how much we challenge boys vs. girls
  • How our gendered language has an effect on kids’ perspectives
  • Three things that Janis says can help us raise more successful young women
It was amazing to have a conversation about motivating your teenage daughter with Janis today and hear her perspective on the gender inequality that persists in our society. If you like what you hear, be sure to check out her website, janiskaplan.com, and pick up one of her fifteen brilliant books while you’re at it. Thanks for listening and see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Janice Kaplan
Janice Kaplan
Wrote NY Times bestseller The Gratitude Diaries and care passionately about The Genius of Women. Was editor-in-chief Parade magazine and network TV producer.
Ep 81: Creating Genius
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