On Tuesday I read a blog post in which a female blogger made a list of people in her acquaintance she’d put in charge of governing society if she was a monarch. All the people on her list were male. When called on this fact in the comments, she mentioned one woman she knew who she felt was “awesome,” but then proceeded to say she’d listed people she knew who were “wicked smart” and that offhand, she couldn’t think of any other women she’d put in that category.
Typing that just now makes me want to yell and scream and possibly hurt my foot by kicking something unexpectedly hard.
As a woman who is “wicked smart,” let me explain something to those of you who haven’t thought about such things. High-IQ women often do not present in the same way as high-IQ men. That doesn’t mean they’re not just as smart; they just behave differently, in ways that are not typically identified with high intelligence.
For starters, smart women often work very hard to fit in. We blend. We spend a lot of time listening to other people talk. We don’t always put ourselves forward, even when we have expertise or insight about a certain topic. We are not as likely to offer or even form opinions, since we are supposed to be nice and agreeable. We are not as likely to argue. We deliberately choose topics of conversation that don’t show off our intelligence, partly because being an intelligent woman is somewhat fraught in our society and partly because if we want to have a real conversation instead of expound, it often works better to choose a topic in which intelligence doesn’t matter as much. We do much of this unconsciously because it tends to get us better social results, ie people like us more.
Women in general are also not encouraged to be as ambitious as men. We get more flak about being ambitious. People patronize us and tell us we have delusions of grandeur. In many professional arenas, we have to adopt masculine behaviors in order to realize our ambitions, not to mention deal with sexism. We also have to do better than men at the same positions in order to be recognized. And then people will minimize our accomplishments and say catty things about our appearances and personalities. Not to mention, women who want to have kids know they’ll end up with more of the work involved, even if they have full-time careers as well. So high-IQ men are often very “successful;” they might be wealthy or have a fast-track career or a top-notch reputation in academia. High-IQ women don’t always have any of these things because we either chose not to follow ambition in the classic sense or because we felt we should not.
Finally, our society privileges the sciences over the humanities and the arts, and factual knowledge over both raw intelligence (which is more about speed and ability to learn, understand, and synthesize) and emotional/social intelligence. And yet, women are less likely to go into the sciences, less likely to offer up their knowledge in conversation, and more likely to be encouraged to focus on emotional intelligence. And for those of us who have focused on synthesis as opposed to factual memorization, our talents are often entirely overlooked.
My husband and I are a great example of this. By both our assessments, we are more or less equally intelligent. He has a PhD in physics, an important job at Google, and impressive amounts of knowledge on a variety of intellectual subjects. I’ve spent most my time pursuing music and writing and focusing on personal growth and interpersonal issues. It is not uncommon for people to tell me my husband is one of the most intelligent people they’ve ever met. No one ever tells him the same thing about me. He presents himself very differently in social situations, has many of the expected achievements, and studied string theory instead of music, so this doesn’t come as a big surprise.
I didn’t want to talk about this subject because we as a society seem to have a deep discomfort with intelligent women, and talking about it leaves an opening to be personally attacked or categorized as stuck up. I can hear it now: “She’s not as intelligent as she thinks she is, and her husband is just playing up to her big ego.” Admitting to intelligence, at least here in the United States, is not the best way for a woman to gain friends and influence people. And ironically, gifted people tend to be more sensitive, more likely to be perfectionists, and more likely to hold themselves to impossibly high standards…all while suffering from impostor syndrome. But I’m so tired of the misconceptions that abound, and I don’t hear enough women speaking out on this subject, so I felt I had to say something.
There are plenty of very smart women in the world. You might just not realize who they are. So the next time you are listing off smart people you know, think again and consider whether you can add some women to your list.