A new study confirms what women who have attended college already know – generally speaking, college men think that they are smarter than women.
“After surveying roughly 1,700 students across three biology courses, they found young men consistently gave each other more credit than they awarded to their just-as-savvy female classmates. Men over-ranked their peers by three-quarters of a GPA point, according to the study, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. In other words, if Johnny and Susie both had A's, they’d receive equal applause from female students — but Susie would register as a B student in the eyes of her male peers, and Johnny would look like a rock star. ‘Something under the conscious is going on,’ [the study author] said. ‘For 18 years, these [young men] have been socialized to have this bias.’”
That’s right. Male students gave their male peers more credit than their female peers for no legitimate reason whatsoever. The male students in the study think their male peers are smarter than their female peers because, well, they are male.
The takeaway is this: if you are male, people will assume you are smart. This is male privilege. It’s real, and it’s pervasive.
The question is why does it persist?
First, it’s important to note that this article does not mention race, so we know nothing about the race of the students who participated. It’s probably fair to speculate that white students, including white women, would also over-rank themselves. At least one study has shown that white people tend to think that black people are intellectually inferior. So it’s important to keep in mind when we discuss this that systemic racism is alive and well, and it needs to be addressed, urgently. But since this study only addresses sex, we’ll focus on that for now.
Getting back to the question of why male privilege persists, the author stated, “For 18 years, these young men have been socialized to have this bias.” What does that mean? What does it mean to be “socialized” to have a bias that assumes males are smarter than females, even when the evidence doesn’t bear that out?
Women are still underrepresented in history books “because writers apparently do not want to do the work of reconstructing and reconfiguring [them].” Maybe that’s because most history authors are men. One result is that we celebrate men’s intellectual achievements but not women’s.
And, of course, for centuries women were excluded from colleges and universities, and girls weren’t even allowed to attend school until the 19th century.
This is surely all part of the story. But what if there’s something else going on? What if the images that we see of women in hyper-sexualized advertisements also play a role? Images like this one, depicting a man holding a bottle of vodka pointed at a woman’s crotch. Or this one, of a woman as spaghetti, eagerly waiting for a man to consume her. Or this one – a woman as a puppet (the fact that she is dressed professionally brings home the point that even professional women are not to be taken seriously). Or this one, which is nothing other than a glorification of gang rape.
Discussions about these ads tend to center around whether images of sexual violence encourage actual sexual violence (answer: yes). Fair enough.
But the images send another message as well: women are not to be valued for their intelligence. They are to be valued, if at all, for their ability to perform a sexuality that is pleasing to men. Which begs this question: are male perceptions that women are intellectually inferior related to rape culture?
It’s difficult to find a study investigating whether these images have an impact on how males view sex-based differences in intelligence. But we do know that watching pornography has extremely harmful effects on male brains (and relationships).
We also know that a third of college males would rape a woman if they knew they wouldn’t be punished for it (interestingly, that same study found that many college men don’t associate the act of forcing a woman to have sex with them with the crime of committing rape).
Is it a stretch to believe that being relentlessly exposed to violent images of hyper-sexualized women contribute to this culture? Is it a stretch to further suggest that one reason a third of college males would happily rape a woman given the consequence-free opportunity to do so is that these males view the women as less intelligent?
The intelligence level of a potential rape victim is probably not the primary thing on a would-be rapist’s conscious mind. He is probably not consciously thinking “this person is less intelligent than me.” But is it really that hard to believe that these men unconsciously view women as less intelligent than men? Put another way, would someone actually rape another human being if the rapist thought the victim possessed intelligence equal to his?
There’s a meme going around that depicts images of women in hyper-sexualized, and often violent, ways, with the tag-line “It’s hard to imagine yourself as President when this is what you see.” These are the kinds of images that many of us see every day on billboards and magazine covers. The meme’s message is clear – these images have a detrimental impact on women. And there is no need to speculate about whether this is actually true. Study after study shows that images that depict women in hyper-sexualized and demeaning ways affect women’s confidence and mental health. And it would be a mistake to doubt that these images are prevalent. One study found that half of all ads show women as sex objects (and that was in 2008 – surely the proportion is higher today).
So, if these images affect women’s psyches, might they affect men’s? When a man looks at one of these images, what does he see? Does he see a smart, strong, capable human being? It is very difficult to imagine that being the case. Male misperceptions of sex-based differences in intelligence are unlikely to change until we stop seeing these images. In fact, given the ways in which women are depicted in our society, it’s just not surprising that the males in this study under-ranked their female peers on intelligence. What would be really interesting would be to study the impact of hyper-sexualized images of women on male brains. That would take us a step further and tell us something about whether the images do, in fact, impact men's perceptions of women's intelligence. And then we might be able to do something about it.