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Test the nation

Dr Raj Persaud
Gresham Professor
Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist The Maudsley Hospital,

Nursing has traditionally tended to attract women because of its reputation for a less macho employment culture and less discrimination in areas of gender, class and race. However, this reputation could be endangered by new research that suggests that men are smarter than women.
Paul Irwing and Richard Lynn, academics at the Universities of Manchester and Ulster, have recently published research in the British Journal of Psychology that has stirred up a storm of controversy by suggesting that men bear, on average, significantly superior intelligence or general cognitive ability to women.(1) The previous consensus of gender equality in IQ now appears to have been blown apart by Lynn and Irwing's confident assertion that if you look at the data carefully, and through coldly scientific, unbiased eyes, there actually is a profound gender difference in intelligence.
They reviewed and summarised 57 studies of sex differences in abstract reasoning of general population worldwide with 80,928 participants. They found that among adults the advantage over women in cognitive skills is five IQ points; a highly significant difference. IQ is not some obscure aspect of personality but an attempt to measure the kind of "smartness" that explains why some do better than others in intellectual challenges. Genuine differences between genders in intelligence would have dramatic implications for job prospects, university entrance and all sorts of hiring decisions. It could be powerfully deployed to explain the glass ceiling and the relative lack of women in boardrooms, government and senior levels of the professions.
Lynn and Irwing argue the IQ difference could have several causes. In all societies women are predominantly responsible for the care of children, and even professional women carry out the majority of domestic work. They suggest it may be possible that this specialisation could affect scores on tests of cognitive ability.
They suggest men are better at thinking about things because they traditionally emerged from the caves and manipulated the physical world rather than people. This has supposedly left a genetic legacy of superior abstract reasoning - the kind of intellectual skill demanded by academic life and the pencil and paper tests so beloved of employers and Nobel Laureate committees.
There are, however, several serious problems with their contentions. If IQ tests measure something meaningful then we should observe in the real world how these differences manifest in some measurable way, for example in exam results. There is considerable recent evidence that on many indices girls and women are increasingly equalling or overtaking boys and men. In the UK in 1980 only 37% of women obtained first degrees, but by 2001 this figure had risen to 56%, and in 1998, for the first time, women gained more first-class honours degrees than men.
Lynn and Irwing cheerfully admit these problems with their data but explain them as perhaps a sign that women try harder than men and so compensate by using superior motivation. This obviously problematic defence highlights the deepest problem with the IQ controversy.
Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology at University College London, has been measuring not just what people's IQs are, but what they believe them to be. Studies from over 20 countries worldwide confirm a tendency in men to overestimate their IQ while women underestimate theirs. Furnham concludes that cultures encourage hubris in males and humility in females. It might be the lack of confidence in women that makes them try harder than the overconfident arrogant male - but it is seemingly the male who delivers a generally superior performance to the female. If this is the case, however, give me a lower IQ but a burning desire to win over a higher IQ and a complacent belief in God-given superiority any day.


  1. Br J Psychol 2005;96(4):505-24.
  2. Sex Roles 1998;38(1-2):151-62.