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Are women smarter than men?

Men may have more grey matter but it is women who excel in functions such as planning and language, says Francis Aranha.

india Updated: Jun 05, 2007 19:01 IST

Every year around this time, we see the old familiar headlines, "Girls outshine boys" or some variation on the same theme. So, does gender matter when it comes to intelligence, or is there no difference between boys and girls? Or are the girls just smarter?

Since girls had a pass percentage of 85.02 per cent with boys clocking in at just 77.37 per cent, it appears that the basis for the headline is that the pass percentage is better among girls than among boys. I don't have the list of kids who passed, but I suspect that there are a larger number of girls than boys in the top ranks.

A great many explanations have been bandied around for the discrepancy from: girls who are poor students are taken out of school much earlier than boys of the same level; or, young girls are not allowed to go out and do something other than study; or poorer kids flunk more often.

Since poorer girls drop out more often than boys, girls who'd have otherwise flunked, end up dropping out, leading to higher pass percentages. Some think that there is more than economic status to this.

The rural-urban divide plays an important role. The overall pass percentage is usually higher in the cities than it is in the rural areas. And the proportion of women in rural schools is much lesser for obvious reasons.

Some feel that the pass percentage is higher with girls because they're a much more focused group - if you're a Indian girl in school, you're obviously either rich, urban, really motivated, have literate parents, have a good environment, or some combination of these and so on.

Richard Coley reported in 2001 that females often outperformed males on various measures of verbal ability, while males tended to outperform females on measures of mathematical and spatial ability.

Without going into the various definitions of intelligence, this should probably be read with the population sex differences study done by Deary and others in Scotland, based on data from 1932 onwards, which found that girls were more numerous than boys in the middle IQ ranges (90-115) while boys were more heavily represented at both the extreme ends of the spectrum.

They describe finding larger differences in variance, with nearly twice as many males as females scoring in the top 2 per cent (the IQ equivalent of scores above 130).

In other words, girls showed higher verbal ability and were better represented when the tasks required average intelligence (middle IQ ranges). It could therefore follow that the Indian education system as embodied in the CBSE, with its emphasis on rote learning (c'mon, you know I'm right!) and reproduction of textual material rewards the average person with high verbal abilities.

On the other hand, whatever the differences in brain sizes and quantity of grey matter, the fact is that while women may have smaller brains than men, they appear to have greater neuron density in their prefrontal lobe, the area involved in higher functions such as planning, judgment, and language, although men still have higher absolute grey matter volume than women in their prefrontal lobe.

So until more is known about which sex is smarter, I'm going to say that Harry Belafonte got it right. Man smart (Woman smarter!). The song, written in 1952 by Norman Span says "the woman of today is smarter than the man in everyway".

I mean, look around you. Chairperson of the UPA, Chief Minister of UP or Sindhu Hariharan, the CBSE topper from Chennai - the list goes on.

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First Published: Jun 05, 2007 12:54 IST