Ep 81: Creating Genius

Episode Summary

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!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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 daughter or 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!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Put a stop to self-deprecating language:

“Hey, the words you use are really important and I just noticed you saying [x, y, and z]. I think you’re great and I wish you would not talk about yourself like that. I know you don’t necessarily mean it, but it gets in there.”

-Andy Earle

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Dissect Disney:

Janice is very anti-Disney because many of the classic princess stories don’t leave room for the heroines to be geniuses. For example, in Disney’s telling of The Little Mermaid, lead Ariel gives up her talent, her singing voice, for a chance to win the love of a boy she doesn’t even know (and in fact, she was the one who saved him from a shipwreck). In a note or on a piece of paper, write down three Disney movies your teen watched most as a child. For each movie, jot down the basic plot. Now, what are the overt and/or subliminal messages that those movies are giving? Come up with at least two messages for each movie and try to go deeper than simply “love conquers all” or “good triumphs over evil.” Look to the plots you jotted down to get an idea of what the messages may be for each movie.

2.  Who Are You Challenging?

(Members Only)

3.  “Hello, Boys and Girls!”

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The Genius of Women: From Overlooked to Changing the World. You’ve written a lot of books now. You’ve written a lot of stuff. So what was it that inspired you to take on this project specifically next?

Janice: Well, I have been interested in women’s issues for much of my career. And I was, specifically on this book, I was motivated by a survey that was done by a friend of mine, a very well known pollster named Mike Berland. And Mike did a survey on genius, where he found that 90% of Americans say that geniuses tend to be men. 90% is a crazy number, and you can’t get 90% of Americans to say that they like apple pie. And Mike told me these findings, and he also told me that when asked to name a female genius, virtually the only name that anybody could come up with was Marie Curie. Now there were a few Rosalind Franklins thrown in there too.

Janice: So he and I had lunch one day and he told me about this. And he said, “What do you think is going on? Why do you think people think that geniuses can’t be women? Why do you think that people say that geniuses tend to be men?” And I said, “I really have no idea.” And I pretty much spent the next two years trying to come up with an answer for him.

Andy: You kind of start out here with, what is genius? And you made me really think a lot about it. And you have some interesting stuff in here about how genius is so tied with being noticed, I guess, and recognized. And on page 21, I love this, where you say, if a woman does brilliant work, but nobody notices, can we call her a genius? It’s a bit like the tree falling in a forest question. If the event hasn’t been heard by the rest of the world, does it really make a sound?

Andy: I mean, how much of genius is recognition and how much of it is doing good work, and how do they play into each other?

Janice: Well, early in my research, I was in London and I interviewed a professor from Cambridge named Charles Jones. And he described genius to me as the place where extraordinary talent meets celebrity. And I thought that was a pretty wonderful definition. I was pretty taken aback, extraordinary talent meets celebrity. He’s a academic, a gray haired Cambridge guy. He did not mean celebrity in a Kim Kardashian, reality TV kind of way. He meant it in the sense of getting your work noticed. And as you said, having it seen, being recognized.

Janice: And no matter what field you’re in, whether you’re an academic, whether you’re a radio broadcaster, or a whatever field it may be, if people don’t see what you do, if people don’t pay attention to it, you can’t have an impact. You can’t have an impact in that generation and you can’t have an impact into the next generation, which is what geniuses so often need to do.

Janice: So I think for so much of history and sadly, probably to this very moment, women have had one half of that equation. They’ve had that extraordinary talent, that extraordinary ability, but they’ve not had the celebrity. They’ve not had the recognition and the notice. And so, that probably more than anything else is why we don’t think of them as geniuses, because we just haven’t acknowledged them that way.

Andy: And so, why is that so important? And why does this dearth of female genius in our popular conscience matter so much?

Janice: I think we’ve wasted such an enormous amount of talent and we’ve put people in a bind where they don’t even begin to understand what they can do. We get wrapped in these stereotypes. We get wrapped in these biases and our expectations, and we limit ourselves. One of the extraordinary women who I spoke to named Cynthia Brazil, who’s a roboticist at the MIT media lab, said to me that she thinks we live in a world of a thousand nudges, where we would never tell a girl that she can’t do something anymore, but we keep nudging her in the wrong direction.

Andy: Right.

Janice: If your son comes home from school and he says he’s having a tough time in math and not doing well, you might say, “Oh, let’s sit down and do it together,” or “Let me get you a tutor.” If your daughter comes home and says she’s having a tough time in math, you might say, “Oh sweetie, but you’re so good in drama.” And it’s those kind of gentle nudges that girls, children, all of us hear in a way far more than we would realize.

Andy: Yeah, it’s really subtle. But I think you’re onto something, that it comes directly from the narratives that we tell and who we talk about and who we celebrate. And you have great stories in here, where I really had mentioned, I really was fascinated by the story of Mozart’s sister. But you really found a lot of contemporary, you went and interviewed people, really impressive people, and have their stories in the book, which I really enjoyed. And I thought it was refreshing.

Janice: Well, I’m happy to share that story of Mozart’s sister, because it’s such an important one, if I may. And we know Mozart as a genius and he was a genius. And to say that his sister was also a genius is not to take away from him in any way whatsoever. But his sister, whose name was Nannerl, traveled with him and appeared on concert stages with him when she was very young.

Janice: And then when she got to be closer to her teenage years, she was sent home and told that it was time for her to go home and get married and be a mom. Can you imagine how incredibly frustrating that must be when your passion is music, when you care so deeply about something, when you’ve been on the stages of Vienna and Paris to great acclaim, to be told you can’t do this anymore? And the story is so moving, because it’s so blatant.

Janice: And as I just said before, we don’t necessarily do that anymore. We wouldn’t necessarily tell a young woman that she can’t follow her passion and she can’t follow her music, but we make it hard. And when you look at a Mozart’s sister, you kind of think, well, why didn’t she just stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to go home. I’m going to continue doing what I love.” Well, we didn’t ask Mozart to stand up against the whole world. We just asked him to do what he does, which is his music. And that’s the opportunity that women have not had, which is the opportunity to do what they love, what they’re great at, what they’re passionate about, rather than what the world thinks that they should do.

Andy: So then, does that mean that we need to teach our daughters to look for that more or to assert themselves more and try to seek out more recognition, because it’s not going to be just given to them? Or what do you think is the takeaway, I guess, for teenagers?

Janice: I think we need to be aware of the messages that we’re sending our kids. There was a study that I talk about in the book that I was really taken by. It was done by a professor at Princeton named Sarah Jane Leslie. She’s also a Dean at Princeton, and she did her research with a professor at NYU named Andrei Cimpian.

Janice: And they invited small children into their lab and they told them a story about somebody who was very, very smart. And then they showed them four pictures. And two of the pictures were of men and two of the pictures were of women. And up until the age of five, when asked, who is this story about, the children pick the person who looked most like them. The little girls picked one of the women and the little boys picked one of the men.

Janice: And then at about age six, it changed. And the little boys picked one of the men and the little girls picked one of the men. And Leslie said she was really shocked by this. And she didn’t have an obvious explanation for why it would be, other than that by the time they reach six years old, children have taken in all of those social messages that say, it’s the boys who are the smart ones. And the interesting thing is that at that age, and even up through high school often, girls are doing better than boys in school. And yet, somehow that social message that they pick up on television, that they pick up from what people say, has become far more important than the actual fact of the A’s that they may be getting.

Janice: The interesting thing about that particular research is that, as I’m sure you know, a lot of social science research can’t be replicated. We hear that over and over again, the study is done and nobody can do it again. Well, the sad thing about this study is that it has been replicated a thousand times. And if you have little kids, you can probably do it in your own living room this afternoon.

Janice: So that’s the kind of thing that we have to figure out how to fight and how to face. And I think we don’t necessarily want to take away from our children the social recognition that they get, that little girls get for being cute or dressing up as princesses. As Sarah Jane Leslie pointed out to me, that’s a social benefit that they get, and we’re not going to turn the world upside down right now and make that change.

Janice: But on the other hand, we have to balance it. If your daughter is going to get great praise from everybody, and she’s told how cute she looks when she wears her little princess costume, you better darn well make sure that she also has an astronaut costume that she can put on and that you can tell her how darn cute she looks in that. And if she wants to go see Cinderella at Disneyland, well, that’s up to you, but please also take her to NASA and watch a space launch and take her to space camp. Let her see that there are other things that she can get praise for. You don’t have to take one away, just make sure that you balance it with the other.

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Andy: That’s interesting that you talk about also going to see Cinderella, because you have a chapter in here where you talk about some of the messages from Disney movies and the media in general. But one thing you talked about that was really interesting was Frozen, which I thought was fascinating because it’s so popular. But I also thought, because it just shows how anything can be an opportunity for conversation. Anything, if you see something like this with your kids, it’s an opportunity to talk about it. Even if the messages in it are not great, and especially if they aren’t, then it’s something that you can bring up and say, “Hey, did you notice this?” So what’s going on with Frozen and why do you call it out in here?

Janice: Well, I do indeed call out a bunch of Disney movies. Somebody has said to me, I should probably stop going to Disney movies since they upset me so much. Let me give you a very blatant example, which is The Little Mermaid. And The Little Mermaid is making a great revival now because Disney is doing it again as a live action movie. They’re in the midst of making that right now. And let me remind you of what the story is of The Little Mermaid. Ariel, our little mermaid needs to get the kiss of true love from the Prince. And in order to get that, and in order to come live on land, she has to give up her voice and be mute. So she needs to win him without speaking, without singing. What better way do we have of telling little girls that they should shut up and look beautiful?

Andy: Look pretty.

Janice: Now, I know that parents don’t necessarily think of that message when they’re buying their children little Ariel backpacks and little Ariel lunchboxes and dressing them up as Ariel for Halloween. But believe me, the children are getting those messages. The children are hearing that and they are understanding that.

Janice: And this past Halloween, for some reason, there were a lot of little Ariels coming to our door. And I asked my husband if we could put up a sign that said “No candy for Ariel.” And he didn’t think that would be a good idea. And he was probably right. I got to get him that. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my sending that message would have been any worse than the message that the children were getting.

Janice: So I agree with you that even things like that are subject for conversation. If all of your children’s friends are watching Ariel, The Little Mermaid or Frozen, you don’t have to ban it, but watch it with them and have the conversation. And point that out, and point out that that’s a problem. And I think those discussions can go a long way.

Andy: And so, you point out actually that even just the language that we use is really gendered. And teachers come into a classroom and say, “Hello, boys and girls.” But you would never walk in and say, “Hello, whites and blacks.” It’s so just accepted and okay to separate people out by gender, I guess, in a way that it’s not for so many other things.

Janice: Right. And I think that’s really important, because we do start separating out at those very young ages. And that makes a big difference. Children are aware of it. We’re putting children into completely separate categories, as you said, or as you quoted, when the teacher comes into the classroom and says, “Hello, boys and girls.” And we would never do that with other topics. I’m almost embarrassed to say out loud, a teacher coming in and saying, “Hello, whites and blacks,” because it sounds so horrible.

Andy: Yeah, exactly.

Janice: We know that you don’t do something like that.

Andy: You’d be fired by the end of the day.

Janice: Right. Exactly. Because simply, it’s no more or less true than hello, boys and girls, right? It’s just recognizing two different categories. But simply saying it is saying that there is a distinction. And making that distinction somehow says, one is, if not better, at least different.

Janice: One of the women I interviewed for the book was Anne Wojcicki, who is the CEO of 23andMe, which is the genetics testing company. And Anne grew up on the Stanford campus, and so it was a fairly liberal and open place. And she said most of her friends growing up were boys and girls. And when she got to high school, her study partners in high school, in her math class and in her science classes, were also boys and girls.

Janice: And she said it wasn’t until she got to college that some guy said something to her that made her realize he was seeing her differently because she was a woman. And she said she looked at him as sort of an interesting sociological, anthropological species, sort of thinking, Oh, you’re one of those people who thinks that men and women are different.

Janice: And I love that story because I think possibly one of the reasons that Anne Wojcicki was able to go on and create a company as she did, and deal in Silicon Valley, which is such a male-oriented area, was because she didn’t see those distinctions. And she had grown up not seeing those distinctions. And she has a couple of sisters who are also wildly successful. They all grew up with that belief of we’re no different than anybody else. There’s nothing that should ever stop us.

Janice: And we sometimes say that to our daughters. We give them those cute little girl power t-shirts, but all of the messages that we’re sending are somehow very different than that. So I think that Anne Wojcicki model of letting boys and girls be together, letting them play together, letting them be friends in high school, letting them be friends when they’re teenagers, encouraging that, is going to go a long way towards letting them be colleagues when they’re in law firms and businesses much later.

Andy: You write about a distinction that a lot of the genius women you interviewed seem to divide the world unconsciously into men, women and me. How does that work? They see themselves as being outside of that sort of, or what?

Janice: I think it is that sense of, they’re not trying to be men. They recognize that. They’re very happy being women, but they don’t fit into the stereotypes that we hold of women. And so, in some ways, they put themselves into a different category. Tina Landau, who is a Broadway director, said to me that she never likes to be called a woman director. She is a woman who directs. And it’s such an important concept, because it sounds like it’s the same thing. But once you say woman director, you’re lumping all of these women together. You’re saying that all women direct the same way. And it’s the same when you talk about a woman scientist or a woman politician. You’re suggesting that there is something distinctive about them because they’re a woman.

Janice: And I think we’ve replaced some of the old stereotypes of women with the new stereotype. And the new stereotype tends to be that women are collegial and cooperative, while men are the leaders. And we make that into a positive thing that women are collegial and cooperative, but it’s also a ridiculous thing, because think about it. We all know women who are leaders and women who are loners and women who are collegial. And we know men who are leaders and loners and collegial. But once you start expecting that a whole group of people is going to behave in a particular way, that’s what you look for.

Janice: And somebody said to me, “Oh, well, Tina Landau, that Broadway director, is a very collegial director. And don’t you think that’s because she’s a woman?” And I said, “No, she’s a collegial director because she’s a collegial director.” And there are some women who were very-

Andy: Who also happens to be a woman.

Janice: Right. And there are some women who are very tough and didactic leaders as directors, and there are some men who are known as being collegial. So I just think if we get over that sense and are able to see ourselves as individuals and not as members of this group, we help ourselves and our children a lot.

Andy: So you also talked briefly about same sex schools, single sex schools. Some women have attended those and said they were really passionate about them. So is there evidence on those? Is that a good place to send our girls to help them develop this attitude a little more, that they can be geniuses and they should go do that?

Janice: I admit that that’s a question that I’m a bit torn on. My instinct when I was writing the book was to say that, as I said with the Anne Wojcicki story, that it’s a lot better for men and women to be colleagues together. As I’ve been touring the country talking about this book and meeting a lot of people, I have met a lot of women who did go to single sex schools. And what they reminded me is that the world has not necessarily changed as much as we would like it to. And so, perhaps if we do give girls that opportunity early on to feel strong, to feel confident, that it can help them.

Janice: On the other hand, I think that separating them out and separating people out is never a good idea. So, there has to be some point, right, there’s some point at which we’re going to start to mix again. And so, if you’ve been at a single sex school and all of a sudden you’re in the real world, how is that going to work out? So I’m a bit torn on the subject. I think the ideal is to have boys and girls together, and for teachers and parents to be able to recognize when they are allowing their own biases to interfere and to try to talk about those early on.

Janice: If you have a single sex school, then perhaps the boys never get the message. Maybe the girls get the message that they can be strong and confident, but maybe the boys never get the message that the girls can be their equals and that the girls can be their colleagues and the girls can be their friends.

Andy: Yeah. It’s like, there’s all those great psychology studies where just as soon as you divide people up based on any characteristic and put them in two separate groups, they just start to think of themselves as members of this group and all the people in the other group as other. And they’ve done a crazy study. So they just bring people in and randomly give them a different colored t-shirt, and they start to favor the people in their group and think bad thoughts about the other people in the other group. And they act nicer to people in their group and they’re mean towards the people in the other groups. And I just think the more that we are divisive in the language that we use and in keeping people apart and stuff, it definitely has some of that effect, where it contributes to that group thinking a little bit.

Janice: No, I absolutely agree. And if we get that far by giving them a red t-shirt versus a blue t-shirt, imagine how we do it from early on. We’re separating them out and saying, you are a girl and that is different from being-

Andy: Fundamental difference here somehow.

About Janice Kaplan

Janice Kaplan is the author of fifteen books, including the New York Times bestseller The Gratitude Diaries and her most recent book The Genius of Women. As the Editor-in-Chief of Parade, the most widely read publication in America, Janice worked with major political figures including President Barack Obama and interviewed stars including Barbra Streisand, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig. Janice was deputy editor of TV Guide magazine and executive producer of the TV Guide Television Group, where she created more than 30 television shows that aired primetime on major networks. She began her career as an award-winning producer at ABC-TV’s Good Morning America.

Janice has appeared dozens of times on TV shows including Today, Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonight, and CBS This Morning. She is a popular speaker at conferences, conventions, and events around the country where her inspiring, funny, and energetic talks win raves. Janice graduated magna cum laude from Yale University and won Yale’s Murray Fellowship for writing.

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