Why Representation In MacArthur ‘Genius Grants’ Matters

Women dominate the recently announced list of MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” winners—for the fourth year of the last five, they constitute the majority of the list, earning 15 of the 25 slots.

It’s a far cry from the grant’s inaugural year, when just six women received the no-strings-attached monetary gift in 1981. In the 41 years since, the ranks have grown to include Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Marian Wright Edelman and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The coveted grant of $800,000 paid over five years is designed to give the most highly qualified people in their fields the financial freedom to pursue their work. This is crucial for women’s career and creative pursuits to be taken seriously. But how does it compare with other prestigious awards and funding opportunities?

This year, 97 women were named Guggenheim Fellows, which recognizes mid-career scholars and creatives, out of a total of 180 recipients. That’s a greater share than the previous year, when that number was 92 out of 184.

The National Institute of Health, which funds the academic research of scientists in the U.S., identified a gender disparity in its funding, adding that it is “imperative” to address it. Of all NIH research grants given in 2021, only 36% went to women. And while that number has been increasing, it’s been at a painfully slow crawl.

Moreover, the VC funding gap—a detrimental hurdle to female founders—has been widening over the last several years. Indeed, their share of VC dollars has declined despite the fact that women have been founding businesses in greater numbers than men in recent years and that women-founded business are smart investments; companies with at least one woman co-founder produce reliably higher ROI. While VC investments overall have been trending upward—in 2021, overall investment dollars increased, with a record-setting $330 billion invested—that same year, women founders received a mere 2% share.

The MacArthur grants show that the structures designed to reward accomplishment and empower potential by removing the financial barriers between a recipient and their work should be built toward equity, giving women equal opportunity to live and work with complete independence (at least within the very narrow confines of this very narrow list). Unconcerned with a day job or where their next rental payment is coming from, writers and artists and intellectuals and academics (and at least one blacksmith) can pursue their passions.

That freedom can have a profound impact on women, who are often responsible for the bulk of “invisible” household and caretaking labor, a fact that became even more glaring throughout the pandemic. The She-cession, as it’s been dubbed, has been devastating for women’s progress in the workplace, with women reporting disproportionate rates of burnout and leaving work in astonishing numbers, correlating closely with school and daycare closures.

Having the support and freedom to dedicate oneself solely to work is a life women have been largely barred from for the bulk of Western history. Traditionally, a married woman’s role was to support her husband—caring for her family and the home—so that he could focus on his work. As more women forged careers of their own, that additional labor was, and still is, most often carried out by them. So, while I want to celebrate this remarkable milestone, it is also a painful reminder of the many brilliant minds left to wither on the vine. Just look at some of these women’s work—work that will shape the future—but also remember the vast human potential that never was, lost to the past.

For the MacArthur awards, we have:

  • P. Gabrielle Foreman and her pioneering work in mapping the history of Black Americans.
  • Yejin Choi and her efforts to develop true natural-language AI.
  • Jenna Jambeck’s research to rid the world of plastic waste.
  • Monica Kim’s historical lens of war with a vision toward decolonization and radical peace.
  • Adventurous and ambitious musicians like jazz cellist Tomeka Reid, electronic music composer Ikue Mori and social justice activist Martha Gonzalez.
  • Post-incarceration care physician Emily Wang.
  • Sociologist Jennifer Carlson, whose work investigates gun ownership and culture in the U.S.
  • Health justice lawyer Priti Krishtel, who fights for health equity and access to life-saving medications.
  • Reproductive justice and human rights advocate Loretta J. Ross.
  • Potawatomi scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, with her vision of environmental stewardship.
  • Chemist Danna Freedman pushing the boundaries of computing through quantum information science.
  • Mathematician Melanie Matchett Wood uncovering the secrets held by numbers.
  • Architect Amanda Williams and her vision of public space that interrogates its impact on the everyday lives of Black communities.

Every single one of them is doing irreplaceable work that has transformed and will transform lives. Some, like Jambeck and Choi, are doing work that has the potential to transform not only others’ lives but life itself, the very way we inhabit this planet of ours and interact with our communities and environments.

So if a merit-based grant going to the crème de la crème of achievers in a vast range of fields is recognizing women, why are other investment paths so far behind? Why are we still not seeing this across the board and at every level?

It’s not enough to simply throw up your hands and cry “institutional misogyny” or “boys’ clubs” or “the slow pace of progress”—not when we need to interrogate what those phrases really mean. If the “slow pace of progress” on women’s inclusion is the cause, it’s critical to understand why the pace has been so slow, because it’s the same thing that slows women’s progress in every area of public life: the assumption that, all things being equal, we’d really rather dedicate ourselves to our families, as if that’s the only possible path. Called “pregnancy discrimination” or “the motherhood penalty,” it’s something we still see to this day—that, in unstable times, women ought to be in the home.

If anything, the pandemic has proven quite the opposite: In many ways, women were the ones who had to be relied on, stepping into childcare and educator roles on top of existing work and responsibilities. Here, we see the fruit of women untethered, one of the primary goals of feminism. There have always been exceptional women who were able to punch through the cracks in the walls designed to keep the rest of us out. What makes 2022 different is that it’s no longer an exception.

Whether this continues and expands to equal representation in other areas is up to us. Women’s work—whether it be creative or intellectual—is valuable. It deserves investment. When we make that investment a priority, everyone will benefit.


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