A dose of female intelligence

Harvard Business Review interviews a research team who have found that increasing the number of women in a team raises group intelligence.

Of course, the findings could also be as accurately described as showing that men make groups more stupid, although the researchers are far too tactful to mention this particular interpretation.

Woolley: We’ve replicated the findings twice now. Many of the factors you might think would be predictive of group performance were not. Things like group satisfaction, group cohesion, group motivation—none were correlated with collective intelligence. And, of course, individual intelligence wasn’t highly correlated, either.

Malone: Before we did the research, we were afraid that collective intelligence would be just the average of all the individual IQs in a group. So we were surprised but intrigued to find that group intelligence had relatively little to do with individual intelligence.

HBR: But gender does play a role?

Malone: It’s a preliminary finding—and not a conventional one. The standard argument is that diversity is good and you should have both men and women in a group. But so far, the data show, the more women, the better.

As a male clinical psychologist, I am now completely accustomed to being intellectually out-gunned by my female colleagues, but it’s important to realise that there’s more to group work than intelligence.

Do we really want a world of better decisions but with fewer dick jokes? Just the thought of it keeps me up at night.


Link to article in Harvard Business Review (and don’t miss the podcast).

27 thoughts on “A dose of female intelligence”

  1. This seems very strange to me. How many bridges were built by women? What percentage of engineers are women? How many Nobel prizes have been won by women? Name every opera, symphony or famous painter who’s a woman?

    If some group is going to claim superiority, don’t they have to explain some of those things?

    1. Women didn’t have the right to accomplish anything. There are a few women who did. Like George Sand who had to use a men’s name to be published, or Marie Curie, who could published her research only because of her Husband. But the truth is that women didn’t have any rights. They couldn’t study or own or work or vote or fight for their country. Women were held in the kitchen and the bedroom by men. But today they can build bridges or publish and they do so becaus we fought for our rights. And we kick your asses.

    2. Stick around for a few years. It wasn’t until less than 50 years ago that major educational institutions in the United States even began accepting women into their programs. If you were going to hire someone to build a bridge would you tend to chose one with several years of educational experience, or one without? In 2008 Harvard accepted more women then men. Now that the playing field is beginning to level out I think you will be in for a big surprise.

    3. Working until retirement takes 40+ years.

      Raising a baby takes 6 years.

      When dividing up responsibilities, guess which one we chose?

  2. Eugene Hütz says that having female members in his band Gogol Bordello keeps the males from doing the sort of stupid things an all-male group would tend toward. I contend this study does not mean women bring more intelligence to a group, but rather that men act differently in the presence of women.

  3. It probably has to do with the competitive nature of males, either by increasing it and the result being a more intelligent idea or by calming the competitive nature.

    I only base this off of my own experience ofmale group dynamics, ive seen lots of really stupid ideas go through because of it.

  4. Do you think this has anything to do with men performing better, when around women as well?

    The mating urge should be able to bring out the best in us, no? 🙂

  5. We love a ‘Gender war’ story – nothing more satisfying for reinforcing our sense of self than ‘proof’ that men are from Mars and women from Venus.

    But in fact Woolley says clearly that the results are not explained by gender but by differences in social sensitivity. Sure women in his samples scored higher on social sensitivity *on average* but there are a lot of individual men that score higher on social sensitivity than most women.

    Also, you could expect that this trait could be highly influenced by upbringing and culture. It would be interesting to see how social sensitivity in men has changed over the past few decades, although I don’t suppose we have the data.

  6. Was there not another study that showed that teams with better internal communication performed better than teams formed of better members. Teams with women as members have better communication between team members.
    Maybe right?

  7. Of course one could hypothesise that, were society to become less mysogynistic, a gender neutral culture might develop to the point that it doesn’t matter so much what the gender of a group happens to be – in which case, women would presumably be well represented. Or perhaps not. As men have been telling me all my life, perhaps we are inherently different – and women are just way, way, more civilised and productive.

  8. Didn’t they pretty much prove the same thing with ants? Basically, the more, the better. It seems as though if you toss individuals into a group eventually you’re bound to stumble upon a scenario where some leaders emerge. Simple math. Of course women’s ability to potentiate some kind of cooperation would be a boon to the group.

  9. Well, there are forty years since the feminist revolution and we are still waiting for these female geniuses: the Internet, the Web, the cell phone, the GPS, Facebook, Google and so on and so forth have been invented by men. I don’t know of any MAJOR invention made by women.

    Over the last five decades women, who make up roughly 50 percent of the world’s population, have claimed only 2 percent of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences, 8 percent in literature and 0 percent in economics. During that period Jews, who were an oppressed minority (there was no Holocaust for women) and who comprise less than 0.5 percent the world’s population, have claimed 32 percent of the Nobel Prizes for medicine, 32 percent for physics, 39 percent for economics and 29 percent of all science awards.

    We can still wait for centuries and women will still claim that they don’t get results because they are discriminated (even when they have grants only for women, most college students are women (especially in the soft subjects, not in STEM), and women live 5 years more than men).

    But one time women will have to walk the walk instead of talking the talk.

    1. I think the gentleman does protest too much. A quick search on the Internet will bring up all sorts of achievements by women.

      Perhaps Malone and Woolley obtained their results because women tend to be consensus builders (whether by nature or by training).

    2. Imnotbody, first of all, the Nobel Prize does not define who is a genius and who is not.
      These days, of the 77 new doctors to graduate from Tufts Veterinary School in 2001, 63 of them were women. They now make up the majority of vets (which is tougher than becoming an M.D – can you guess why?) I’m surprised your genius of choice is the guy who invented Facebook…. as opposed to, say, Lynn Margulis who established the theory of eukaryotic organelles?

      Plus which, you seemed to miss the entire point of the post, which is about what factors can make teams more successful. And since you like Google so much, type in this name: Elinor Ostrom.

  10. I really appreciate Jane Goodall’s perspective on why there aren’t more women in scientific fields and what might help increase their numbers. Furthermore, I feel her theory could apply to other male dominated areas outside of science, such as government representation and business management. This topic appears at around 4:50 of the following video clip: http://video.nytimes.com/video/2011/05/13/books/review/100000000789861/jane-goodall-illustrated.html

  11. I don’t think this is relevant to the study but feel I must respond to this troll.

    “I don’t know of any MAJOR invention made by women.”

    Check these electronic musical instrument patents on ubuweb.


    Notice they are attributed to Daphne Oram, UK Electronic Music pioneer, who died in poverty with her legacy obscured. Notice in particular her 1967 US patent for digitally controlled waveform oscillators, the basis of the most common industrially deployed electronic music technology.

    Various anecdotal accounts ‘reveal’ she was slightly crazy / hysterical / plagiarised the work / was difficult to work with etc. etc. bla. Stuff you might culturally associate with male genius.

  12. So the biggest factors for whether or not you will die while in Grand Canyon National Park are; being male, in a group of males, no females present, between the ages of 16 and 35. (Taken from the book, Death in the Grand Canyon.) Men aren’t more stupid, they are more willing to take stupid risks in order to be on top of the pecking order. If they pick a field of study, this can be useful. If they’re just out in a field, that can get ugly.
    Women are more likely to get consensus, men are more likely to get credit. I am absolutely sure that every “single” man who got that Nobel or built that bridge had a team around him. I’m also sure that the team was largely female.

  13. Have the naysayers actually read TFA?

    It was about Collective Intelligence of Groups, not achievements of individuals.

    In fact a major result is the collective intelligence of a group is not well predicted by the intelligence of the individuals!

    “Finally, c was positively and significantly
    correlated with the proportion of females in the
    group (r = 0.23, P = 0.007). However, this result appears to be largely mediated by social sensitivity (Sobel z = 1.93, P = 0.03), because (consistent with previous research) women in our sample scored better on the social sensitivity measure than men [t(441) = 3.42, P = 0.001].”

  14. “Finally, c was positively and significantly
    correlated with the proportion of females in the
    group (r = 0.23, P = 0.007)”

    So the proportion of females in the group accounted for just 5% of the variation in ‘collective intelligence’?

  15. Yes but I would like to see the results of adding the number of PEOPLE in a group and see if it causes an increase in group intelligence, regardless of gender. It would seem that on average more brains, more perspectives, would add to the intelligence. Maybe its not gender but different perspectives, different areas of knowledge of certain people are what adds to a group’s intelligence.

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