Women show cognitive advantage in gender-equal countries

Women’s cognitive functioning past middle age may be affected by the degree of gender equality in the country they live in, according to new findings from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“This research is a first attempt to shed light on important, but understudied, adverse consequences of gender inequality on women’s health in later life,” explains researcher Eric Bonsang of University Paris-Dauphine and Columbia University, lead author on the study. “It shows that women living in gender-equal countries have better cognitive test scores later in life than women living in gender-unequal societies. Moreover, in countries that became more gender-equal over time, women’s cognitive performance improved relative to men’s.”

Bonsang and colleagues Vegard Skirbekk (Norwegian Institute of Public Health and Columbia University) and Ursula Staudinger (Columbia University) had noticed that the differences in men’s and women’s scores on cognitive tests varied widely across countries. In countries in Northern Europe, for example, women tend to outperform men on memory tests, while the opposite seems to be true in several Southern European countries.

“This observation triggered our curiosity to try to understand what could cause such variations across countries,” says Bonsang.

While economic and socioeconomic factors likely play an important role, Bonsang, Skirbekk, and Staudinger wondered whether sociocultural factors such as attitudes about gender roles might also contribute to the variation in gender differences in cognitive performance around the globe. They hypothesized that women who live in a society with more traditional attitudes about gender roles would likely have less access to opportunities for education and employment and would, therefore, show lower cognitive performance later in life compared with men of the same age.

The researchers analyzed cognitive performance data for participants between the ages of 50…

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