The Thinking 

The Curse of Female Mediocrity

February 22, 2010




WHY IS IT that women seem to be on average better musicians, better singers, better painters, better sculptors, better poets, better novelists, better artists, and yet the vast majority of artistic geniuses are men? How can this be? Patriarchal conspiracy, some active repression of female talent, must be responsible for the low representation of women at the apex of artistic creation.

In fact, this strange contradiction makes sense. It is perfectly consistent with the dichotomy in male and female ability in many areas. Men tend to be the worst and the best. Women tend to fill the middle. This is the curse of female mediocrity. But it is only a curse in the eyes of the greedy and envious. Women may seldom be geniuses, but they also tend to be less represented among history’s abject failures. To be average is better than being awful. Women are amply compensated in the long sweep of history by having escaped the ruinous consequences of intense competition and masculine focus, and by the ability to excel in areas that will never garner Nobel Prizes. Besides, artistic endeavour is as much a feminine as a masculine thing.

The male mind is designed to compete and has demonstrably more ability in processing and abstraction. The female mind is less prone to obsession and extreme intelligence. There is an essential complementarity between the sexes that suggests adaptation to entirely different functions over time, as well as created form and intentional design. 

As Steve Moxon puts it in his excellent book The Woman Racket:

“… both pre-eminence and abject failure are typically male territories, whilst mediocrity tends to be the female lot (with exceptions, of course: nurturance certainly being one). This difference cuts across everything and is rooted in male–male competition.”

People tend to see only the high-achieving males. Moxon writes:

“The exclusive male occupancy of the apex makes us falsely imagine that males must be scarce at the base of the distribution, and even that there must be an inverted pyramid. The mirror at the bottom of what is happening at the top we tend not to see.”

Let’s review a couple of facts about female and male intelligence. Men tend to be about five points higher on overall IQ than women, a statistically small difference. However, males are overrepresented at both the bottom and top of the intelligence curve. Men outnumber women by two to one at an IQ of 125 and by six to one at the genius level of 155, according to studies by Paul Irwing and Richard Lynn, who took many surveys of sex differences and averaged them. But it is highly simplistic to say men are smarter than women. In fact, these are two different types of brains.

According to neuroscientists, the brains of men show more processing tissue and the brains of women show more connectivity. Male cognition is characterized by focus (or conversely by lack of focus); the female mind is relatively diffuse, as the Jungian psychologist Irene de Castillejo put it.  Simon Baron-Cohen, widely regarded for his work on male and female cognition, speaks of the male mind as “systematizing;” the female brain as “empathizing.”

The male drive for competition, present on both the genetic and behavioral level, leads to more failure and more success. In Moxon’s words:

It’s a seeming paradox that boys and men are always seeking novelty, are highly distractable, have a short attention span, and even when they find an interest it’s often a fickle one; yet once they find something that intrigues them, they become obsessed by it. This explains on the one hand the short attention span and on the other extreme obsession (Moir & Moir, 1998). This makes good sense for men. The male willingness to take long shot gambles to try to acquire a high pay-off in terms of raised status explains the facility for extreme focus; but equally if there is nothing currently for  him that makes sense to practice such focus upon, then it may be that a man is better employed sampling a wide range  at is happening in the environment to try to spot where intense effort might be well deployed. Short attention span and obsessive focus are both facets of the drive to status, and another take on why males tend either to be successful or failures and not a middling in-between.

In the case of art, men may possess a greater drive for perfection for other reasons too. You might say, men do not experience that integrated wholeness that women achieve in simpler ways. Art bridges the divide between mind and feeling. Feminine nuturance does too.

Because women often a finely-tuned artistic sensibility, many people assume they should be great artists as often as men. But great art is not the product of sensibility alone. It takes high levels of abstraction and competition.

Women do not possess the genius of Beethovens or Mozarts; most men don’t possess that genius either and fewer men possess the artistic competence of women. The reality of masculine artistic genius is hardly reason for women to put away their paints and canvases or stop working as concert musicians. Artistic endeavour, as I said above, is every bit as much a feminine as a masculine thing.

                   —- Comments —

John Purdy writes:

Another point on the subject of male genius that the discussion so far has not covered is that a lot of geniuses are megalomaniacs, another character trait that probably skews to the male side.

While not true in every case it’s quite common among composers and painters.

Laura writes:


Jim B. writes:

Anyone who has pursued photography seriously enough to take classes sees the difference rather starkly. No question, the female students tend to be much better photographers out of the gate than the men. The men (heterosexual men, that is) tend to become obsessed with the technical minutia of lens, resolution, etc. and end up taking technically perfect photos of nothing. The women generally learn only enough about the camera to allow them to use it as a tool, and early on make much more compelling photos.

But then the women top out – they take endless photos of the same things, and it becomes clear that they see art not as an end in itself, but either as a relational tool or as a form of therapy(nothing particularly wrong with either, of course, but it doesn’t make for great art). The few men who can get beyond the gearhead mentality, on the other hand, have absorbed the technical aspects of the craft to the extent that they can forget about them, and then can apply the same sort of objective obsessiveness to the world beyond the lens.

Alan writes:

Wow. While reading this article, I was struck with an observation about Western society in general and U.S. vs. the rest of the West specifically. You may have already written about this.

1. Coming from Canada, I always noticed how the U.S. was a country of extremes – the were more poor and more rich, more well educated and more less educated. Canada is a country of the average. I would hold this to be true for other Europeanized countries as well.

2. U.S. culture is a much more masculine culture than these other countries. (I think even De Toqueville noted that American women were more masculine, in some ways, than their European peers.)

Perhaps the U.S. is last to stand in terms of a masculine society – and the internal war is really, at its root, not about freedom vs. socialism but about the feminine vs. the masculine, which ultimately goes back to a war about God and who we are as persons and as men and women.

Laura writes:

Interesting. Your point about United States and Canada is intriguing, though there are racial differences too.  Canada has given in more readily to liberal ideals so it is arguably a more feminized culture. 

Tocqueville noted the freedom of American women to travel about on their own, but was impressed by how much conviction Americans possessed about male and female spheres. He believed this differentiation more than anything else accounted for the country’s vitality. He would have been horrified at American life under feminism, though in a sense he predicted it all. 

Rachel Coleman writes:

Who says this type of mediocrity is a curse?

G.K. Chesterton, master of the obvious, treats this is in What’s Wrong With the World. He states:

“Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten. The modern men will wave a cigarette instead of a stick; he will cut his pencil with a little screwing pencil-sharpener instead of a knife; and he will even boldly offer to be warmed by hot water pipes instead of fire . . .”

Chesterton calls this the principle of the ‘universal stick’. Modernity over-specializes, and this bleeds into the sphere of women.

“Shall all mankind be specialist surgeons or peculiar plumbers; shall all humanity be monomaniac? Tradition has decided that only half of humanity shall be monomaniac. It has decided that in every home there shall be a tradesman and a Jack-of-all-trades. But it has also decided, among other things, that the Jack-of-all-trades shall be a Jill-of-all-trades . . . Cleverness shall be left for men and wisdom for women. For cleverness kills wisdom; that is one of the few sad and certain things.

“But for women this ideal of comprehensive capacity (or common sense) must long ago have been washed away. It must have melted in the frightful furnaces of ambition and eager technicality. A man must be partly a one-idead man, because he is a one-weaponed man–and he is flung naked into the fight. The world’s demand comes to him direct; to his wife indirectly. In short, he must give ‘his best’; and what a small part of a man ‘his best’ is!”

Chesterton avers that it is “a despicable modesty” that the object of an electric light is merely to light. We could say something similar about feminism.

Laura writes:

No one can match Chesterton in his magnificent statements on this issue.  He says it all.

Shame he wasn’t a woman. : – )

Laura adds:

I especially like his “cleverness kills wisdom.”

That’s exactly what we see today, the wisdom of women blasted away, its filaments broken, as they pursue cleverness .

Sage McLaughlin writes:

 Thomas Sowell, in his “Random Thoughts” column from a couple of months back, wrote, “Some people are so busy being clever that they don’t have time enough to be wise.”

Neat coincidence. 

Mabel LeBeau writes:

Without a philosphical reading background, I can only comment on what I’ve observed in my own life.

As parent of a little boy, early intellectual stimulation and encouragement prompted a high level of understanding in the growing mind. When presented with opportunity for particular area of development, the focused advanced instruction seemed to promote both overall and specifically fertile brain development. My guess is that a little girl wouldn’t have been afforded early focus of advancement, which when an already high level of understanding is effected, specialization allows ‘coasting’ for concomitant advancement in other areas.

For a girl, excellence would’ve been expected across the spectrum, but less focused so that no superbly high level in a particular area, just generally higher intelligence cultivated.

I remember overhearing a female co-worker explain she’d inherited a player piano which in my mind was a giant music box not requiring much mental gymnastics to produce pleasing auditory development. She was later wondering why she was so bored even though she had a home to keep, job, and so on. I was thinking to myself, I could never be bored if I had a piano in the house, but a player piano might be boring. (Now, with music boxes, I was forever taking the little drums out and putting them together in different ways with the music tines, because there was invariably something to take apart; I could never be bored unless in a vacuum). Although I have extremely average intelligence, I could never imagine a highly intelligent person ever being bored. To my way of thinking, intelligence is a maximization of neural circuitry on the fertile bed of active curiosity. In other words, I think that when the curiosity is eliminated, there is no room for intellectual development.

I imagine comparatively, men might have more focused areas of brain development, whereas woman might use their brains extensively to promote specific areas of intellectual genius for men, and overall intellectual development for women. This is just speculation, because I had a lot of smart sisters, and raised very, very smart boys.

Laura writes:

It makes sense given the demands of child-raising for a woman to be more of a generalist. As Mabel points out, she then can adapt to specialized inclinations in sons, as well as the different development of daughters. Imagine what a disaster highly focused mothering would be. 

 In light of previous discussions about the education of boys, it’s interesting to note what these masculine inclinations often mean. As Moxon points out, there is often less focused mental activity in males as they develop. (There are also more cases of serious learning difficulties in boys.) Instead of viewing this as normal, schools stigmatize it.

John Purdy writes:

Alan writes: “Perhaps the U.S. is last to stand in terms of a masculine society..” Really, though if you want to see masculine and feminine people you should check out the Russians. Their men are incredibly stoical and poker-faced and their women highly feminine. I think they’re the “last stand” of masculine and feminine among whites.

And theirs is not a particularly free society, it’s an authoritarian one.

Laura writes:

If the Russians are the last stand of masculine and feminine, we are in trouble. They have one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

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