Are men ‘cleverer’ than women? Deconstructing the dogma of female intellectual inferiority.

Aug 29 22:22 2007 Mauro Pereira Print This Article

“Inevitably news, like every discourse, constructively patterns that of which it speaks”   (Fowler, 1991: 4)       



This project analyses discourses surrounding gender and the politics of I.Q. It investigates the way in which written texts in this area clarify or obscure oppressive gender relationships in societyI take the position that the content of the news is not a factual account of the world but instead it imposes ideological values of socio-economic origin.  The analyzed data consists of an article drawn from the BBC News webpage.  This text is linked to contemporary research on I.Q. and reflects the complex and subtle discursive work surrounding gender inequalities. 

It follows that,Guest Posting traditional psychologists hold the ideological position that ‘intelligence’ is objectively measurable and consists of ‘cognitive’ traits (Cernovsky, 1991).  Thus, they assume that language is a passive ‘tool’ through which ‘intelligence’ can be conceptualized (Alec & Rapley, 2003).  Consequently, mainstream Psychology encourages language norms and restrictions that support the image of I.Q. research as value-free science (Parker, 1997).  Such norms are also adopted by journalists who pretentiously attempt to report news in an unambiguous ‘fashion’ (Fowler, 1991).


However, discourse analysts regard psychological phenomena such as ‘intelligence’ as discursive actions rather then intrapsychic processes (Cernovsky, 1994).  Thus, we can argue that 'I.Q.' is something that people do through the use of language rather than something they have (Kamin, 1995).  Therefore, instead of being a passive ‘window’, language and scientific sounding words such as ‘Intelligence Quotient’ have a performative function in ‘writing’ particular versions of ‘truth’ (Antaki, 2006).  Hence, I use Discourse Analysis (DA) as a method of investigating the pragmatics of language-use and its contribution towards perpetuating gender inequity.  I also draw upon Feminist Psychology to put forward alternative discourses through which gender and intelligence could be reconstructed.  Feminist research has become paradigmatic for much discourse analysis, especially since much of the research surrounding DA explicitly deals with social inequality (Frith, 1998; Speer, 2001b).  I also engage in a critical discussion of the moral and socio-political implications of legitimizing the assumption of ‘women’ as intellectually inferior.  I argue that intelligence and gender are not stable and natural but fluid, dynamic and constructed through discourse.  Finally, I discuss the methodological strengths and weaknesses of DA by looking critically at my work and making transparent its underpinning assumptions.




DA is a methodology that falls within the postmodern tradition (Billing, 1985; Garfinkel, 1967; Gee, 1999).  This methodology subscribes to a relativist ontology and its epistemological underpinnings are social constructionist in nature (Johnstone, 2002; Potter et al, 1990). This means that DA challenges the idea that Psychology can produce ‘scientific’ and objectively measurable data concerning individuals’ ‘intelligence’ (Cernovsky, 1997). Instead, discursive analysts argue that, scientific claims about I.Q. and gender are transformed to an apparent causal relationship through language rather than ‘scientific’ evidence (Wilkinson, 2001).  This can best be understood if we regard the world as a 'negotiable and shifting place which cannot be understood except through language’ (Willig, 2001: 103).  Thus, meaningful ways of conceptualizing ‘intelligence’ can only exist through social consensus, language and discourses (Billing, 1988; Wetherell,1987; Van Dijk, 1995).  By discourse I am referring to a 'set of statements or practices that systematically constructs the object of which it speaks' (Foucault, 1972: 36).  Therefore, we can argue that speech is performative in nature and it constructs reality rather than passively representing it (Billing, 1989).  Since that 'language is constructive and functional, no one reading can be said to be ‘right’ or ‘valid’ (Willig, 2001: 103).  Thus, DA is the most suited method for achieving the aims of this study since that it focuses on the performative character of language and the ways in which discourse constructs 'reality' rather than representing it (Wetherell et al, 1987).  Moreover, DA has been identified as an appropriate method to explore representations of gender and I.Q. (Cernovski, 1997).


However, since that DA incorporates a diversity of approaches with different epistemological roots, I shall concentrate only on methods such as Discursive Psychology (DP).  The rationale underlying this choice is the importance of focusing only on the action orientation of talk, as well as in the ways in which written texts use discursive resources to achieve interpersonal objectives (Burman, 1997).  Furthermore, DP does not aim to discover the ‘true nature’ of intelligence but to understand to the processes through which objects are ‘talked into being’ (Willig, 2001).  Thus, instead of regarding I.Q. as defined in terms of 'intrapsychic' processes, my focus is directed towards the action orientation of talk and particular versions of the ‘truth’ being constructed through written text (Edwards, 1991a).  The data analysed consisted of the article ‘Men cleverer than women claim’ published on the BBC News website. Although pretentiously written in a ‘detached fashion’, this article implicitly provides support towards ‘scientific’ claims about men’s intellectual superiority in relation to women. Hence, we must focus on the ways in which language norms ‘encourage authors to describe research in neat, objective, detached and sterile fashion, ignoring inevitably messy or subjective aspects’ (Parker, 1997: 284).   






This section consists of a systematic analysis of discursive accounts situated in the article.  The following extracts are concerned with the views put forward by BBC News in the text.  The analytical comments presented bellow each extract will be elaborated in the subsequent section as these do not constitute a full discourse analysis of the text.  They simply reflect my attention to action orientation of talk.  The categories ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘I.Q.’ are deliberately placed in quotation marks as an attempt to avoid their reproduction as ‘factual’ or objective 'truths'.


             Extract 1  


Title:   'Men cleverer than women' claim

Academics in the UK claim their research shows that men are more intelligent than women. A study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology says that men are on average five points ahead on IQ tests. Paul Irwing and Professor Richard Lynn claim the difference grows when the highest IQ levels are considered.


The title of this article clearly demonstrates how discourses surrounding gender constructs a binary dualism between ‘men’ and ‘women’.  This is, the concept ‘women’ is being constructed as the ‘other’ in relation to ‘men’. By writing about ‘men’ as intellectually ‘superior’, 'women' are automatically positioned as inferior. These categories are also assumed to be stable and natural.  Additionally, in a different discursive context, this article draws upon authoritative voices through remarks such as ‘Academics in the UK’ and citing reputable publications such as The British Journal of Psychology.  It is also interesting to notice that the BBC News is presenting this article in objective language.  This linguistic exercise endorses an image of research as detached, objective and value-free.  Furthermore, the functional orientation of claims like ‘on average five points ahead’ is to foster an image of intelligence as immutable or reducible to a single I.Q. score.  Thus, ‘intelligence’ is being constructed as a fixed trait or ‘essence’ residing inside individuals and somehow objectively measurable or genetically transmissible.  In this way, the BBC News has used a wide range of rhetorical strategies in order to warrant its claims regarding the legitimacy of gender differences in I.Q. scores.  It seems to me that we can best make sense of these accounts by viewing them as ideological practices of representation, rather than objective facts or ‘true’ accounts of individuals’ intellectual ability (Schonemann, 1995) 


     Extract 2     


           'Widening gap'

Dr Irwing, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Manchester University, told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four the study showed that, up to the age of 14, there was no difference between the IQs of boys and girls. "But beyond that age and into adulthood there is a difference of five points, which is small but it can have important implications," he said. "This is against a background of women dramatically overtaking men in educational attainment and making very rapid advances in terms of occupational achievement." The academics used a test which is said to measure "general cognitive ability" - spatial and verbal ability. As intelligence scores among the study group rose, the academics say they found a widening gap between the sexes. There were twice as many men with IQ scores of 125, for example, a level said to correspond with people getting first-class degrees. At scores of 155, associated with genius, there were 5.5 men for every woman.



In this extract the BBC News comments are contextually organized around hidden assumptions of an existing ‘natural gap’ between levels of I.Q. in both sexes. We may also be persuaded to believe that it is perfectly legitimate that 'Dr Irwing' a ‘lecturer in organizational psychology’ decides the occupational suitability for ‘men’ and ‘women’ according to their achievements in psychometric tests.  The intrinsic validity of such accounts is organized around discourses of ‘education as meritocracy’ and ‘career success as survival of the fittest’ (Cernovsky, 1997). It is also interesting to notice that Dr Irwing remarkably claims that ‘up to the age of 14, there was no difference between the IQs of boys and girls’.  These claims are not free from rhetorical orientation as they underpin assumptions that ‘girls’ can only outperform ‘boys’ in educational achievement up to the age of ‘14’. This seems to indicate that women’s genetic inferiority becomes ‘transparent’ above this age.  In another discursive context, Dr Irwing asserted that ‘this is against a background of women dramatically overtaking men in educational attainment’ which gives rise to the assumption that this so call ‘dramatic’ overtaking is of poor quality when compared with what ‘men’ can achieve. We can also notice here that ‘intelligence’ is being constructed as ‘general cognitive ability’ and ‘spatial and verbal ability’ whilst at the same time reduced to a single score.  Thus, through selective use of forms of quantification like scores and categories such as ‘genius’ the BBC News is constructing a ‘factual account’ to support its case.  Therefore, the functional orientation of these claims is to propose that 'I.Q.' is independent from rhetoric.  



            Extract 3


Nobel prize-winners

The differences "may go some way to explaining the greater numbers of men achieving distinctions of various kinds, such as chess grandmasters, Fields medallists for mathematics, Nobel prize-winners and the like". The paper will argue that there is evidence that at the same level of IQ, women are able to achieve more than men "possibly because they are more conscientious and better adapted to sustained periods of hard work".



In this discursive context the article locates itself firmly in the justification of ‘boys’ underachievement at the same level of I.Q. as a product women’s ‘conscious’ and ‘hard working’ characteristics rather then a product of their intellectual potential. These remarks seem to obscure alternative interpretations for differences in I.Q. tests and therefore deny women’s voice in this matter.  Thus, whilst ‘men’ are associated with categories such as ‘genius', 'women' are automatically placed in an inferior position. Therefore, it seems to me that the functional orientation of such discursive accounts is to justify the unacceptable status-quo through genetic claims that often ‘blame’ individuals and divert our attention from wider socio-political conflicts.




Extract 4


Earlier this year, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, sparked controversy when he suggested at a seminar that one reason men outperformed women in maths and science was genetics.


The comments in this extract are warranted through remarks from authoritative figures from reputable educational institutions.  In this way, a genetic epistemology regarding men outperforming women in maths and science is being put forward.  In this discursive account, ‘maths’ and ‘science’ are being constructed as ‘superior’ forms of knowledge.  Such remarks put forward a ‘scientific and rational’ rhetoric which steams from evolutionary discourses.  Thus, it seems to me that Dr Summers’ comments are contextually organized around hidden assumptions of men’s rational superiority as opposed to women’s irrationality. 




As an initial starting point, it would be useful to highlight that that ‘the media do not simply and transparently report events which are naturally newsworthy in themselves’ (Fowler, 1991: 12).  Instead, we can argue that the ‘news is the end-product of a complex process which begins with a systematic sorting and selecting of events and topics according to a socially constructed set of categories’ (p.12).  This process is also followed by positivist psychologists who are encouraged to write their research reports in a value-free and objective ‘fashion’ (Fairclough, 1989).  Hence, scientific sounding words such as ‘Intelligence Quotient’ and psychometric tests are legitimized as valid research ‘tools’ (Anastasi, 1988).  Both mainstream psychologists and journalists pretentiously follow this professional ethos of collecting facts and reporting them objectively disregarding that the “personal is political” (Woolgar, 1988).  By this I mean that research in I.Q. involving human participants has serious moral and socio-political repercussions, since that the researcher forcefully imposes his or hers values upon the research (Cernovsky, 1994).  In other words, the researchers’ values and the socio-political context embedding the research plays a key role in its outcome (Parker, 1994).  Therefore, labelling ‘women’ as less intelligent than ‘men’ has profound effects on their self-conception and the ways in which they are stigmatized by others (Parker, 1999a).  In this respect, Cernovsky (1997) argued that ‘I.Q. tests trigger self-fulfilling prophecies and perpetuate negative stereotypes’ (p. 121).  Such negative stereotypes about ‘woman’ are used to justify unequal educational and employment opportunities, as well as to perpetuate our view of ‘women’ as ‘genetically’ inferior (Speer, 2001a). I will come back to this point in the following paragraphs.   


Discursive psychologists argue that language use and discourse cannot be separate from social context (Potter & Edwards, 1990).  Therefore, researches’ choice of what issues to study and journalists’ news selection criteria are tightly bound up with the demands of this present social context (Fowler, 1991).  Broadly speaking, such choices simply reflect government funding priorities and political and economic pressures where ‘women’ are forced to conform to acceptable categories of femininity (Kitzinger & Frith, 1999).  It follows that, if we are interested in psychological phenomena such as ‘intelligence’ we should study the ways in which people negotiate the meaning and understanding of what is to be ‘intelligent’ (Cernovsky, 1997).  In this respect, Fox and Prilleltensky (1997) commented that ‘meanings are context dependent and not an independent truth’ (p. 45).  Therefore, we can argue that the ideal representations of ‘intelligence’ put forward in the analysed text reflect dominant meanings emerging from language and discourses (Burr, 2003).  In this present socio-political context scientific and industrial-capitalist discourses are the dominant ones (Hollway, 2000).  Thus, through reductionist claims such as “general cognitive ability” ‘intelligence’ is being objectified (Cernovsky, 1991).  In addition, the aforementioned paradigm perpetuates peoples’ understanding of intelligence as immutable, static and genetically transmissible, ignoring inevitably complexity (Potter et al, 1991; Potter, 2000).  Such views fail to take into account broader and more subjective aspects of ‘intelligence’ such as creativity and social and emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2004).  In this respect, Goleman (2004) asserted that ‘intelligence’ is a very complex, dynamic, fluid and context depended process.  Goleman insisted that more subjective aspects such as social, emotional and survival ‘intelligence’ plays a much more important role than I.Q.  


Drawing upon a feminist epistemology, we can argue that predominant scientific discourses about gender and ‘intelligence’ reflect a male dominated society (Speer, 2001a). In this way ‘men’ maintain their deeply held beliefs through scientific claims about ‘intelligence’ (Cernovsky, 1997).  We must also notice that ‘discourses are intimately connected to the way that society is organised and run’ (Burr, 1995:54).  Thus, the underlying values of a male dominated society coincides with the demands of western capitalist societies in which people are encouraged to seek meaning through individual pursuits (Mather, 2000).  In this way, people are turned into ‘employers’, ‘workers’ or ‘unemployed’ or given other social positions or statuses (Burr, 1995).  Hence, by accepting ‘women’ as less intelligent then ‘men’, prevailing discourses of femininity and ‘I.Q.’ expand or limits employment and educational opportunities (Burman, 1995).  It follows that there are severe moral repercussions of legitimizing assumptions of ‘women’ as less intelligent than ‘men’ (see Burr, 1995).  For instance, such views have led to involuntary sterilization of women who where categorized as mentally ‘retarded’ or ‘feeble-minded’ (Parker, 1997).  Therefore, we must conclude that in order to provide ideological support for a male dominated society mainstream psychology obscures and disguises political and moral conflicts as mere personal problems (Hepburn, 2003; Gergen, 1973).  We can also argue that “victim blaming” I.Q. scores reflect the inadvertent pathologising influence of Western and North American culture (Cernovsky, 1997; Parker & Burman, 1993).


Furthermore, the article analysed in this paper takes gender for granted by assuming that categories such as ‘men’ and ‘women’ are stable and natural (Wilkinson, 2001).  It does not take into account categories that would not necessarily fit ideal definitions of ‘men’ or ‘women’ (i.e. transgender, gays and lesbians, etc).  Thus, the BBC News constructed gender as a binary dualism in which power relations become evident  Consequently, the notion of ‘otherness’, ‘normality’ and ‘abnormality are also constructed (Derrida, 1977; Hepburn, 1997).  Thus, labelling ‘men’ as more intelligent than ‘women’ is empowering ‘men’ whilst simultaneously disempowering and excluding women from mainstream society (Edley, 2001).  Hence, I argue that the association between ‘women’ and lower levels of I.Q. is transformed to an apparent causal relationship through linguistic rhetoric, rather than scientific evidence. 






Critical Reflection


In this section I look critically at my work by making transparent its underpinning assumptions. I also discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of applying DP to analysing texts.  This is an important exercise since that it prevents DP from becoming one of a number of ‘scientific’ research ‘tools’ and, therefore, loosing its critical and political position (Bucholtz, 2001).  I previously argued that research, social-context and the researcher are inextricably interrelated.  This rule does also apply to me since that the cultural norms and values in which I am embedded reinforce very particular views of women.  For instance, living in a tolerant town like Brighton, where differences and plurality are celebrated has certainly shaped my views and interpretations regarding the the BBC news article.  Furthermore, my personal interest in issues such as gender and race inequality played a key role in my strategic and political choice about which texts to analyse.  In this way, I held a priori assumptions that fostered the interpretations put forward in the analysis of the chosen text. Since, I argued that no one interpretation of text can be seen as ‘valid’ or ‘truth’, who is to say that my own perspective regards gender differences and I.Q. is superior to those of positivist psychologists?  Hence, my position as a researcher also depends upon culture and subjectivity.  Moreover, I obscured alternative interpretations and possibly contributed towards creating another ideology (see Fairclough, 1992; Edwards, 1991b). 


Therefore, presenting only one of a number of interpretations is particularly problematic, given that DP challenges dominant ideologies (see Becker, 1995).  In this respect, some scholars criticize constructionist approaches such as DP for culminating in a nihilistic relativism (Raskin, 2001; Fletcher, 1996; Raskin, 2002).  This extreme relativist position makes it difficult to sustain the project of Critical Psychology (Wetherell, 1998).  This leads us to a problem which Discursive Psychologists have termed the ‘So what?’ factor (see, Allen & Hardin, 2001). By this I am referring to the practical application of DP in contributing towards social change.  In this respect, we can argue that this study has had little practical use and that the identification of discourses was merely an academic exercise (see Cheek, 2000; Dixon & Durrheim, 2000).  Ironically, for social change to occur we need to focus in categories such as ‘women’ ‘men’ and ‘I.Q.’ in order to identify power relations in the process of analysing discourse (Burman & Parker, 1993).  However, the problem arises when such categories whilst possessing an epistemological status acquire an ontological status and are reproduced by discourse analysts through internal dialogues (Potter, 1996; Kress, 1990).  Paradoxically, we risk reproducing the aforementioned categories as these were ‘real’, objective and therefore ‘scientific’ (see Kvale, 1995).       



DP has also been criticised for the 'difficulty of 'getting to grips' with it due to the lack of prescription regarding how it should be done' (Lettinga, 2002: 540). However, if DP is presented as another research 'tool' 'it has the potential to be used as a value-free technology' (Parker & Burman, 1993: 162).  Another weakness of DP is that it assumes that the world can be changed simply by writing it differently.  We can also criticise DP on the grounds of overfocusing on texts and disregarding other forms of discourse that are manifested in ways other than words (Widdowson, 2001; Widdowson, 1995; Crowe, 2005).  By this I mean that DP does not provide guidance on how to study ‘private manifestations of discourse such as thought and self-awareness.’ (Willing, 2001: 101).  Nevertheless, one of strengths of this methodology is its awareness of the socio-political and moral implications of research (Parker, 1999b).  Additionally, DP provides rigorous and systematic means of addressing social problems and formulating solutions for political change (Mather, 2000).   



This study analysed discourses surrounding gender and the politics of I.Q.  I critically examined the rhetorical context in which news reports and research on gender and intelligence is produced.  I also outlined the principles of DA and DP through a review of the relevant literature in this field.  It should be evident that the project of DP is challenging since that its relativist stance and lack of prescription regarding how it should be done raises certain problems in terms of its practical application.  Nevertheless, I believe that DP provides an ideal framework for analysing texts that deal with psychological phenomena such as ‘intelligence’.  I hope that this paper will act as a catalyst for more and different studies in the future. Subsequent research in this field should seek to identify discourses on cross-cultural differences and I.Q.         


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Mauro Pereira
Mauro Pereira

Editor of The Journal of Social and Psychological SciencesResearch interests: Discursive Psychology, Brain Asymmetric Motor Behavior, Perception and Psychophysics

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