Are women becoming smarter than men and what could be the implications for the world of work? According to a new book by world-renowned IQ expert and moral philosopher James Flynn women used to lag behind men on IQ tests, but now they are catching up or even overtaking men in developed countries. The gap is not a wide one, but the progress women have made over the last 30 years is significant.
What is more, says Flynn, young women tend to be more conscientious at school than men so they are making the most of their intelligence, gaining better school exam results than men with similar or higher IQ levels. They then continue to forge ahead at university and it is only when they start work that men knuckle down and get serious about work, says Flynn, who is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“Women seem to have the temperament that allows them to use their intelligence better,” he states. “They tend to hand in their homework on time and not get suspended. I’ve seen it myself. In my psychology class two thirds of the students are female and two thirds of the late essays are from men. It all shows that self-discipline is as important as IQ.”
The research has got a lot of coverage, but some of that coverage has slightly distorted Flynn’s findings. Some reports suggested, for instance, that women are doing better in IQ tests because they are better at multi-tasking. In fact, what Flynn says is that it is women’s social equality that makes the difference. His book includes data from countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina on one of the best regarded IQ tests which tests non-verbal skills so, he says, it is not loaded towards women.
It shows that women are on a par or ahead of men. However, data from Israel shows it to be the only modern country for which there is similar data where women are still behind men. He believes this is because 20% of the female population is orthodox Jewish and they are kept away from the modern world and discouraged from going out. “It is quite clear that Israel pays a price and that countries that allow equal opportunities get a full contribution from women,” he says, citing similar evidence for other countries where women are not treated as social equals.
Even so, he says women in general still do not tend to get to the top of the big corporates. He thinks this is in part because they tend to be better at social skills than men. “Because they are better at human skills and relating to others, they are less willing to ignore their friends and families to get to the top of General Electric,” he says. “That is to their credit. The glass ceiling is partially evidence of women’s sanity.”
Flynn, author of Are we getting smarter?, says his book also presents other trends which might raise debate. It shows, for instance, that the higher a person’s IQ is the more steeply their analytical skills decline in old age.
He says people in general have managed to increase their IQ in the modern era. He thinks this is because we are much more used to broad abstract thinking than people a century ago. “IQ tests are about classifying the world for our scientific understanding and draws on logic and abstractions. People 100 years ago were fixated on the concrete,” he says.
He believes that some developing countries could outstrip western countries in IQ levels in the next decades and cites data showing that Turkey, Brazil and Kenya are rising up the IQ levels at a faster rate than developed countries like the UK. “Barring disaster, they are making rapid gains whereas countries like Sudan which are facing war are not progressing. I predict that Turkey’s IQ level and GDP will be as big as France’s in the next 30 years. We are going to get some surprises.”
*Are we getting smarter? is published by Cambridge University Press on 13 September, price £16.99.