Since the dawn of modern civilization, we've been debating the effect gender has on intelligence, if any. Though men have long excelled over women in the sciences (and, of course, for centuries men were considered more academically gifted overall), contemporary studies have found that women falling behind in STEM disciplines has far more to do with confidence and opportunity than innate intelligence. And according to a new study, men at least think they're smarter than women in the classroom, a feat that may help them academically in the long run.
As reported by ScienceDaily, the study was conducted by researchers at the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences and published in Advances in Physiology Education earlier this week. Researchers polled students enrolled in a 250-person biology lecture class to see how highly they'd rank their own intelligence, and where they'd compare that intelligence with their classmates.
The researchers found that women were far more likely to underestimate their own intelligence than their male counterparts, noting that even if both a woman student and a male student had 3.3 GPAs, the male student was likely to estimate he was more intelligent than two thirds of the class, while the woman student was likely to estimate she was smarter than only slightly more than half the other students. When comparing themselves to, say, lab partners or study buddies, men were 3.2 times more likely than woman to say they were smarter than the person with whom they were working — even women whose grades indicated that they were every bit as accomplished.
Previous studies have found men perceive male students to be smarter than women students, with one out of the University of Washington noting that a male student would be equally likely to nominate a woman student with a 3.75 GPA and a male student with a 3.0 GPA as the smartest student in the class. Those studies, coupled with this one and others pointing to a serious confidence gap between men and women, help explain why women struggle harder to be successful in their academic careers, and in the workplace later on.
"As we transition more of our courses into active learning classes where students interact more closely with each other, we need to consider that this might influence how students feel about themselves and their academic abilities," Sara Brownell, the study's senior author and an assistant professor at Arizona State, told ScienceDaily. "When students are working together, they are going to be comparing themselves more to each other. This study shows that women are disproportionately thinking that they are not as good as other students, so this a worrisome result of increased interactions among students."
Why do men think they're smarter than they are, while women question their intelligence? For one thing, representation matters: when you see fields like science and mathematics populated predominantly by men, and when your high school and college courses are taught primarily by men, you're conditioned to think men are inherently better at those fields. This goes for courses in history, language, literature, and the arts, as well. When your bosses are, generally, men, you're used to seeing men in positions of authority, and are therefore conditioned to think that's where they belong.
This setup starts young, and pervades through schooling and into professional life. At an old job of mine, a man and a woman were hired in the same year; the man was promoted quickly and frequently celebrated for his work, while the woman first had to take on a contract job as an assistant, where she was tasked with, among other things, organizing snacks for office parties. Maybe that was a reflection of their particular skill, but I can't help but see this as representative of how men and women think of themselves and of each other, and I hope more studies like this prove men's superiority is all based on perception, and nothing more.