x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Are married women inherently smarter than the rest of us?

New study casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that says it is better to defer marriage until after studies are completed.

Girls far outperform boys in reading and science in the UAE, where the gender gap is among the biggest in the world. The findings reported recently by The National pertain to 15-year-old pupils at federal secondary schools, but they appear to hold equally true for many undergraduates, too.

Oceans of ink have been spent discussing the predictors and determinants of undergraduates' academic performance. The usual suspects include everything from socio-economic status to class size. But two easy factors to explore are gender and marital status.

Amal Al Marzooqi, an undergraduate researcher at Zayed University, recently asked the contentious question: who performs better at Gulf universities, males or females? Unfortunately, answers to such simple questions tend to be rather complex. Responses tend to be that men excel at A, B and C, while women perform better in X, Y and Z.

However, based on research in the Gulf, Ms Al Marzooqi actually got a simple answer: women do better at everything, if "better" is defined as higher grade-point averages.

A study at UAE University in Al Ain, published in the Journal of Business Education in 2007, found that female undergraduates studying in the college of business and economics significantly outperformed their male peers. Similarly, a 2010 study at Arab Open University in Kuwait found women did better across the board.

The same results emerged from a study at Kuwait University comparing male and female undergraduate psychology students. A study at Tehran University found that female agriculture students significantly outperformed their male counterparts. In fact, we could find only one Gulf-based study that reported men outperforming women, and the study was limited to outcomes of a single introductory finance course, rather than a whole degree programme. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that in the Gulf, women are at the top of the class.

Ms Al Marzooqi's second question looked at the effects of marital status on academic performance. One of the most comprehensive studies on the subject to date was undertaken in Britain by the economists Jeremy Smith and Robin Naylor at the University of Warwick. Profs Smith and Naylor were able to look at the data for the whole nation. Yes, Britain's entire graduating class of 1993.

The analysis showed that for both men and women, married students did better than unmarried ones. A recent study undertaken at Arab Open University in Kuwait found the same pattern. Abdulla Al Mutairi, a professor in the college of business studies who led the Kuwaiti study, concluded that marital status played a significant role in student performance.

The finding is intriguing, especially since conventional wisdom suggests people tend to put off marriage until after they have completed university.

To address this, Ms Al Marzooqi looked at Zayed University data for the entire student body. As with the British and Kuwaiti studies, she found that married students of both genders significantly outperformed their unmarried peers.

So what's the explanation? Do smart people find it easier to get married? Or do students who get married miraculously become smarter after marriage? These are both laughable ideas, but the problem with discovering interesting relationships is that they need to be explained.

Another slightly more plausible explanation is that married students who survive within academia represent a particularly resilient group of high performing students. We could test this idea by looking at relative dropout rates for married and unmarried students.

However, a simpler explanation, and one confirmed by Ms Al Marzooqi's analysis of Zayed University data, was that married students tended to be older and, when age was controlled for, the academic advantage of being married disappeared.

This finding, however, still casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that says it is better to defer marriage until after studies.


Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University