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Do Women Downplay Their Intelligence?

Girls be like ‘I have two braincells left’ then…write their masters thesis, the most gut-wrenching poetry known to man, an argumentative essay about late stage capitalism and its consequences, and analysis of sacred geometry,” states TikTok user @goths0up in their post on December 25th, which has since then reached 733K views, 181K likes, and 500+ comments, majority of which are agreements such as “it’s me I’m girls.”


This type of humor has even become a powerful branding tool for certain online personalities, such as Chrissy Chlapecka. In one video, she states, “you’re not a failure, you’re literally just a girl, being a girl is one of the hardest jobs on the planet, I assume it’s much harder than being an engineer, and by the way, I don’t know what an engineer does, but I don’t need to, because I’m just a girl.” Many people see the point behind this satire of the perception of women’s intelligence, while others criticize it. 


What contributes to this type of humor? (Figure 1) As women are currently overrepresented in the fields of arts and humanities, and men are overrepresented in STEM-oriented fields, does the societal devaluation of certain female-dominated fields contribute to this type of humor? Why do women downplay their intelligence, whether jokingly or not? 


Figure 1: Another Example of The One-Brain-Cell Meme

Is this strictly an internet problem or does it have real-world implications? 


Mar Hicks, in his book titled Programmed Inequality, explains how historically, fields such as statistics, physics, and computing were seen as women’s fields, and men were the thinkers, the theorists, the artists, the philosophers, etc. This gendered association with certain fields of study reversed along with the emergence of technology and digital computers. 


To fast-forward to the modern day, studies show that stereotypes about female intelligence begin quite early. Lin Bian, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, and their associates studied self-perception of intelligence in children. Bian et. al found that girls as young as six years old are likely to believe that boys are more likely to be “really really smart” than girls, and more girls than boys avoided activities for people they believed they were for people who were “really really smart.” 


These self-perceptions could be a result of parenting, as a different study by Adrian Furnham showed that parents are more likely to estimate their sons’ IQs being higher than those of their daughters’. Children could then internalize their parents’ perceptions of them well into adulthood - adult men are more likely to estimate their own IQs as higher than those of women.  


However, there is more to the story about if and how these findings translate into self-deprecating gendered humor. These studies are from the early 2000s, so a lot may have changed in parenting styles and self-perceptions of intelligence. As younger generations are becoming parents, it’s possible that they may take a more gender-neutral approach to evaluating intelligence in their children. 


In addition, a different study by the same researcher took into account the idea of multiple intelligences. Men self-reported higher scores in perceived mathematical and spatial intelligence, but there were no found differences in self-reports of perceived social intelligence.


With this context, this humor could be a testament to how younger women could be growing up understanding the idea of multiple intelligences. Instagram user @renergy203 commented on Chlapecka’s post, “I’m a girl and an engineer and being a girl is much harder.” Both this comment and the brain cell post by g0thsoup are examples of women recognizing that they are indeed intelligent in many ways, while simultaneously acknowledging the long-running systemic societal messages that may tell them they aren’t intelligent. 



There are also valid critiques about this type of humor. One person who has criticized it is Eliza McLamb, one of the hosts of Binchtopia, a social commentary podcast. McLamb explains that overuse of this satire can detract from when someone does want to be taken seriously when you do talk about important causes. McLamb states, “Let’s follow that to its logical conclusion…If you say ‘I’m stupid’...the whole idea is that people who support those things are stupid…I don’t think its revolutionary for women to be calling themselves stupid again.” 


In conclusion, the internet has become a tool for thought-provoking discussion - inspiring various things from introspection to activism. Perhaps the brain cell joke is not gendered at all and could be an expression of the valid human emotion of not feeling smart sometimes. This is separate from the point of the post, which could be a testament to all the intellectual achievements women have been making, even if they’re female-dominated fields. Even though overuse of this satire could have implications, women should feel safe to express themselves and their various intelligences. 


Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke

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