The differences between the sexes are also reflected in the cognitive abilities of men and women.
If we look at the merely physical, in general we can say that there are some obvious differences between men and women.
The size, the muscular force, the gravity and the tone of the voice, the hair, the disposition of the corporal fat, the hormonal cycles… in all these aspects we can find differences typical of sexual dimorphism. In fact, even at the brain level we can find some differential aspects.
But … what happens when we talk about factors such as intelligence? Are there intelligence differences between men and women? Are people born with one sex more mentally capable than those of the other? This is an issue that for decades has generated much controversy but has also served to initiate very interesting avenues of investigation.
Remembering: what is intelligence?
To be able to see whether the intelligence of men and women differs or not, it is first necessary to remember what exactly we are talking about when we use the word “intelligence”.
Although there are several positions in this regard, intelligence is generally understood as that capacity or set of capacities which allow an efficient and functional adaptation to the environment in real time, correctly using the available resources for this and developing different strategies depending on the challenge or problem presented by the environment.
Thus, intelligence allows us to understand both ourselves and the different types of stimuli that surround us, organize our thinking, process information, reason, plan, inhibit or develop behaviors and action procedures, among other things. It is a vital element for the survival and functionality of the human being in nature and in society.
Once intelligence has been defined in a generic way, let’s return to the subject that gives this article its title: are there significant differences in this ability between men and women?
Men and women: different or just as smart?
Throughout history, this capacity or set of capacities has been measured through various evaluation methods and mechanisms. One of the most used is the use of psychometric tests, which can measure both intelligence at a general level and subcomponents of this or more specific skills.
In the studies carried out regarding the differences between the sexes in regard to intellectual capacity, it has been found that at a general level there are no significant differences, with women and men being equally intelligent or, better said, not depending on the level of intelligence of the biological sex with which we were born.
In addition, although it has been seen that the brain of men is proportionally larger than that of women, it has been proven that the difference in sizes does not have to imply a difference in the levels of intelligence unless it is very marked.
Thus, both men and women are equally capable of adapting to the environment and establishing action plans, among many other options. However, when the different capacities or subcomponents that are part of what we call intelligence are observed, it can be observed that there are some differences in specific aspects.
Although in general we can say that men and women, as groups, have similar levels of intelligence so that none of them is superior to the other in the global calculation, the performance of different tests, tests and tasks reflects that there are some points or elements in which one sex is slightly superior.
It also highlights the existence of differences in how intelligence is distributed, being more variable in one case than in the other.
In them: slight superiority in mathematical and visuospatial skills
The logical-mathematical skills and especially those of visuospatial manipulation are elements in which men have generally had higher scores compared to them. Thus in tests of logic, calculation or manipulation of space men tend to be better.
Graphic and visual material is usually better processed by men, and they are also usually slightly better at orienting themselves in space.
In them: slight superiority in verbal and language skills
Women have shown in the various tests carried out that, as a general rule, they have a greater command of the verbal sphere and language than their male counterparts. They tend to be better at tasks that require association, understanding, and expression skills. They also usually take a little less time to encode the information received through language.
Linked to this fact, we can observe that the female sex tends to have a higher level of emotion than the male. As a general rule, women tend to express themselves more and be more aware and expansive with their emotions, reflecting to a greater extent what, how and why they feel the way they do.
However, it is necessary to take into account that gender roles also interfere with this phenomenon, which among other things punish men who show their emotions a lot.
IC dispersion or homogeneity
It has been observed at a statistical level that although men and women have the same level of intelligence, understanding this as a general mental capacity measurable through IQ, there are differences in how it is distributed among the population.
The data show that, as a general rule, the female sex presents a less dispersion in terms of IQ level, while the male tends to be much more dispersed.
This means that although there are cases of intellectual disability and giftedness in women, as a general rule, their intelligence values are usually very clustered around the average, with quite homogeneity at the population level.
As for men, most of them also have a level close to the average, but there are many more cases with extreme values both above and below said average than in women. In other words, there is much more intellectual disability and giftedness in males than in females.
Differences in the brain
At the neuroanatomical level, a series of small differences in intelligence by sex have been located that could help explain the divergences found at the experimental level. There are several parts of the brain that are statistically larger or smaller in one of the two sexes.
For example, the female sex generally has a higher proportion of white matter and a larger corpus callosum, which is linked to a faster transmission of information between the different hemispheres and structures. Also, the limbic system, the part of the brain that generates emotions, tends to be somewhat larger.
With regard to males, their brain has a higher proportion of gray matter, responsible for processing information once it has been sent from another part of the nervous system. In men there is also usually a larger hypothalamus.
However, it must be borne in mind that what we live and the way we act is not a unidirectional product of what we have in the brain, but rather that the brain is going to be affected and will develop, being influenced by environmental stimulation..
Thus, if, for example, a person who dedicates himself to music for years will end up developing and strengthening certain brain locations due to training. With this I mean to say that, apart from anatomical differences that are mainly due to genetically inherited sexual dimorphism, some of the differences found are mediated by education, cultural and social expectations, our roles and our experiences.
The role of education and gender roles
Although the differences found have often been linked to the sex of the people studied, the truth is that socio-cultural factors have a great impact on their explanation.
Thus, the differences found cannot be solely attributable to the fact of being a man or a woman, but we must also consider the effects caused by the different gender roles given to each sex. That is why the investigations that cross information related to the difference between men and women with that which has to do with different cultures are very relevant, because they allow a better separation of genetics and gender roles.
Traditionally, the role of men has been that of protector, that hard-working and relentless being who must bring sustenance to the home. Therefore, it must be strong and capable of facing the multiple problems that the environment poses for them by manipulating the physical environment. In the case of women, their traditional role has been that of giver of life, a loving housewife who takes care of her children and is dedicated to offering well-being at home and / or outside of it. These labels make us see that the traditional role of men has been more instrumental and that of women more emotional-relational.
Thus, throughout a large part of history, each sex has been educated in pursuit of values and customs that perpetuate these roles to a greater or lesser extent. Since childhood, different capacities have been demanded from each other, something that over time causes them to establish differences in the way of organizing and seeing the world.
The fact that much of the differences are due to educational factors is easily visible if we take into account the current situation: with the progressive increase in equality in education and the flexibilization and relaxation of gender roles, we see more and more women dedicated to more technical issues and more and more men with a high level of expressiveness and emotionality. With the passage of time, it has been observed that the differences are gradually decreasing.
- Bausela, E .; Colom, R. and Zara, MJ (2004). The Psychology of Sex Differences. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva, 429, Indivisa. Studies and Research Bulletin [online]: [Date of consultation: February 5, 2017]. Available here.
- Colom, R. & García, O. (2002). Sex differences in fluid intelligence among high school graduates. Personality and Individual Differences, 32 (3), 445 – 451.
- Maccoby, EE & Jacklin, CN (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.