A few months ago, a person I consider ‘highly intelligent’ made some conclusive remarks about men being smarter than women, citing the 2005 controversial remarks of the then Harvard President, Dr. Lawrence Summers. According to him, men tended to occupy the extreme ends of the IQ bell-curve, which could be translated into the fact that they are either highly intelligent, or had below average IQ. Women, on the other hand, clustered more in the middle, average range, of the curve. He went on to justify this as good-enough evidence of why there are more men at the top levels of management at different institutes.
Comments like these, especially from unreflexive, privileged men are not uncommon; they are often made to believe in their brilliance, which only adds on to their sense of entitlement. This is because of the way society and social sciences have been constructed. All I can do, here, is provide certain counter-evidences to deconstruct this whole idea, whilst, leaving it up to those ‘brilliant men’ to make their own judgments.
The first argument against this idea comes from all the news blogs and their researches citing why the 2005 remarks were incorrect. Briefly summing up, the difference in the IQ levels of the above-mentioned genders is not biological as Dr. Summers had implied. Gebelhoff (2017), writing for the Washington Post, opined that it was a result of early socialization of children by their parents. Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017), for example, found that by the time American girls were 6 years old, they were less likely than boys of the same age, to believe that they were brilliant. This provoked them to shy away from activities that the children considered as ‘really really smart’. Stephens-Davidowitz (2014), conducted an analysis of the Google searches of American parents which revealed that inquiries related to their sons consisted of whether they were ‘geniuses or stupid’, while for their daughters, the searches pertained to ‘beautiful versus ugly’.
Are Science and IQ really Everything?
The second argument concerns my issue with equating ‘better in the natural sciences’ with being ‘more intelligent’. If one goes back to Dr. Summers’ remarks, he had explicitly stated that boys were better at science and mathematics, and hence, had more representation in such fields. Many construed this as equivalent of the construct of intelligence. On similar grounds, the use of IQ as a measure of intelligence is itself highly debatable, because of its narrow, constricted focus, and lack of incorporation of all the other kinds of intelligences that exist. One of the famous contenders is Gardner (1983), who stated that there were multiple intelligences.
In addition to this, I am highly skeptical of the social sciences trying to emulate the natural sciences in order to gain legitimacy as a discipline, and the huge limitation this brings about in actually understanding the nuances of human thoughts, action and behaviour. Natural science, after all, are all about generalized principles and universal laws, while human behaviors are seldom so mechanistic and simplistic, regardless of what the positivists and the post-positivists would have you believe. And yet, both Science and IQ continue to hold precedence as the most legitimate flag bearers of the construct.
Even if the equation of ‘better at science = more intelligent’ were true, studies showing that men performing better in this discipline were highly biased. Dr. Gopa Bharadwaj (2019), the former Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi, and the former Director of the Centre for Professional Development in Higher Education (among her many other achievements), recently remarked at a seminar on Ethics that during the 1970s and 80s, a plethora of researches which found no significant difference in the abilities of men and women in science and mathematics, were rejected for publication because their non-significant findings were seen to be of no contribution to the literature. Recent studies with educated women and men also showed no significant differences.
What perplexes me further is the usage of these concepts for legitimizing the greater number of men holding positions of power. Positions of power rarely require highly specialized knowledge of the natural sciences and mathematics. Rather, they entail requirement of softer skills, and an understanding of how people working under them can be managed optimally to increase their efficiency. So, perhaps, from every aspect, the argument to downplay the role of sexism in the job market is, in my opinion, null and void.
This brings me to the fourth – and my favourite argument – against psychological constructs like IQ – they are inherently male. My understanding comes from the ideas of Dr. Lorraine Code (2014) who wrote about the feminist epistemology, and the politics of knowledge (though it is certainly influenced by my subjectivity). I have tried to adapt her ideas particularly to the field of psychology, although they stand true for all social sciences.
Historically, it is the white, privileged men who have had access to education for centuries. And because of this access, they have always had – at their disposal – the power, legitimacy and the audience to put forth theories and conceptualizations in the social sciences. Their dominance in the field became so common and natural, that the masculine nature of the knowledge they generated became hidden. They devised theories from their own subjectivities and experiences, and considered them as ‘facts of all human behaviour’. So the ‘psychology’ of the privileged men became the psychology of the ‘masses’.
When it came to testing these theories and concepts, educated (mostly English speaking) people were roped in as participants. And again – because men were mostly the ones who were formally educated – they became the ‘samples of generalized human behaviour’. These concepts and theories only got more established as reliable and valid. The male-ness got pushed and buried further into the background.
One only has to look back so far to understand how this worked. Kohlberg’s famous theory of moral development (1958) was constructed after studying 72 boys between the ages of 10-16 years. Carol Gilligan (1982) provides an extensive criticism of this theory, and why it did not take women’s values into consideration. Even our Freud studied the so-called ‘abnormal upper-class Victorian women’ to devise a theory of ‘normalcy’ for the upper-class men. Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs was formulated by studying the biographies of 18 individuals whom he believed were ‘self-actualised’. Here, the male-ness worked two ways. First, his own gender and experiences influenced whom he chose to call ‘self-actualised’. Second, out of the 18, a very tiny proportion of the sample were women. The rest were white educated men.
So what this means is that the whole concept of IQ and intelligence may very likely be flawed and biased towards men, especially of the white race. For example, IQ does not take into account street smartness, or dealing with unpredictability. And it is a common knowledge that companies prefer women as senior level managers when dealing with a crisis situation. So, IQ scores being used to state that men deserve the top positions in a company is perhaps an unsound claim.
Not just in terms of the gender-bias, this pattern repeats in almost every major psychological theory that we, as psychology students, have been condemned to memorize to our core. This fact can also be used to gage how most of these theories are also racist. Some of the psychometric tests of intelligence, for example, had been extensibly used to label the African American population as less smart and capable than their white counter-parts. The white male theories are also implemented in developing countries like India to judge and label the behaviour of these populations, with our educated Bhadralok enjoying the positive limelight. The list of critique simply goes on.
Perhaps the scenario is changing. Perhaps, because women and people from other races and classes are gaining greater access to education and the workforce, the male-ness of psychology will slowly change. But this is perhaps also a futile attempt at a happy ending, because the current statistics are depressing. So, all we can do now, then, is to make the male-ness prominent, and be a little critical while making or agreeing to generalized statements.
Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389-391.
McLeod, S. (2018). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Simply Psychology.
Code, L. (2014). Feminist Epistemology and the Politics of Knowledge: Questions of, The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory, 9.
Dillon, S. (2005, January 18). Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women, The New York Times.
Goldenberg, S. (2005, January 18). Why women are poor at science, by Harvard president, The Guardian.
Stephens-Davidowitz, S. (2014, January 18). Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius? The New York Times.
Gebelhoff, R. (2017, January 26). We’ve been misled on the difference between genders,The Washington Post.
Mitakshara Medhi is a writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.