Women aged 50 and older who live in gender-equal countries tend to score better on tests of cognitive function than women living in gender-unequal societies, according to a new study published in the journal 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,” said researcher Dr. Eric Bonsang of University Paris-Dauphine and Columbia University, lead author of 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 Drs. Vegard Skirbekk (Norwegian Institute of Public Health and Columbia University) and Ursula Staudinger (Columbia University) observed a wide variation in men’s and women’s scores on cognitive tests across several countries.
They found that 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.
Although economic and socioeconomic factors likely play a significant 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 world.
The researchers hypothesized that women living in communities with more traditional attitudes about gender roles would likely have less access to educational and employment opportunities and would, therefore, exhibit lower cognitive performance later in life compared with same-age men.
The research team studied cognitive performance data for participants aged 50 to 93 taken from multiple nationally representative surveys including the U.S. Health and Retirement Study; the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe; the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing; and the World Health Organization Study on Global AGEing and Adult Health. Overall, the surveys provided data for a total of 27 countries.
All of the surveys included an episodic memory test designed to measure cognitive performance. In this test, participants heard a list of 10 words and were asked to recall as many as they could immediately. In some of the surveys, participants were again asked to recall as many words as they could after a delay. Some of the surveys also included a test designed to evaluate executive function in which participants named as many animals as they could within one minute.
To gauge gender-role attitudes, the researchers focused on participants’ self-reported agreement with the statement, “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”
The findings revealed significant variability in gender differences in cognitive performance across countries. In some countries, women outperformed men; the female advantage in cognitive performance was highest in Sweden. In other countries, however, men outperformed women; the male advantage was highest in Ghana.
As predicted, traditional gender-role attitudes were associated with a drop in cognitive performance among women across countries. In other words, women in countries with less traditional attitudes were likely to have better cognitive performance later in life compared to those living in more traditional countries.
The researchers also found that changes in gender-role attitudes within a country over time were tied to changes in women’s cognitive performance compared to men.
The findings suggest that gender-role attitudes may play a significant role in important outcomes for women across different countries, the researchers argue.
“These findings reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities as we show that consequences go beyond the labor market and income inequalities,” said Bonsang. “It also shows how important it is to consider seemingly intangible influences, such as cultural attitudes and values, when trying to understand cognitive aging.”