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

“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 society. I 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.

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