Who is naturally smarter: Men or women? It’s a question that has ignited countless fiery debates, clichéd jokes and downright outrage throughout the years. It’s a question to which one New Zealand researcher has proposed an answer.
The answer — drumroll please — is women. Or so it appears… let’s unpack this research.
James Flynn is the author of the study and something of an expert in IQ testing. The New Zealand professor is responsible for the discovery of the Flynn effect, which is the continual, year after year increase in IQ scores throughout all parts of the world.
In 2010, Flynn conducted a study using participants from five modern nations where he could get samples of at least 500 people from each gender, ages 15 to 18. He then analyzed those five sets of data, comparing men and women’s test results on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test —a test that measures the reasoning component of general intelligence. Flynn set the males’ average score at 100 and then compared this score to the females’ results.
In four of the five nations, women outscored men by 0.5 to 1.5 points. Flynn attributes this difference to “characterological traits.” In a lecture at Cambridge, England, Flyn said, “My conclusion is the sexes on the Raven’s [test] is probably dead equal for cognitive factors.”
Dead equal, just as smart—so why the media frenzy about how women are outstripping men?
Some media outlets have made broad, sweeping claims that women are more intelligent, better doctors and better gamblers to boot. One of ABC’s news legal analysts, Dan Abrams, even wrote a book on the topic, Man Down: Proof Beyond a Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers and Just About Everything Else. In a video clip on the ABC website, Dan claims that “estrogen is an amazingly valuable present,” which, the clip goes on to conclude, makes women more risk adverse and therefore better money managers. It also gives us a higher pain threshold for giving birth.
Another popular theory being bounced around is that the demands of juggling work and family matters aren’t a drain on energy, as we often think. Instead, this multi-tasking mode actually sharpens the brain and hones our intelligence. According to this theory, the men are missing out with their tunnel vision on their careers and blinders on to anything vaguely family oriented.
I have to disagree with both of these theories. Sure, they may be flattering in some regards—who doesn’t like being told that they’re smart? But they’re basically gender essentialism fancied up in some pop psychology to make them believable.
Claiming that intelligence comes down to the amount of a hormone that you have, or the ability to bear children is ridiculous and insulting to men and women alike. Presuming that a woman is smart because she has estrogen, or because she’s a mom and not because of personal effort and study is insulting. It ignores the woman as an individual, instead, shoving her into a box of generalizations. The assumption that all men are losing their smarts, because they are attached by an umbilical cord to their jobs and lack the ability to think beyond their next pay cheque is equally eye-roll worthy.
The real story behind IQ test scores has nothing to do with any sex, race or nation being inherently superior over another. It has everything to do with investments in education and breaking down social barriers and biases that hinder individuals from fulfilling their own capabilities.