Women who live in countries that face gender inequality may have lower cognitive performance in later life, a study has found. Researchers 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,” said Eric Bonsang of Paris Dauphine University in France. “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 Bonsang. “It shows that women living in gender-equal countries have better cognitive test scores later in life than women living in gender-unequal societies,” he said.
“Moreover, in countries that became more gender-equal over time, women’s cognitive performance improved relative to men’s,” he added.
While economic and socioeconomic factors likely play an important role, researchers 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 hypothesised 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.
Researchers including those from Columbia University in the US and Norwegian Institute of Public Health, analysed cognitive performance data for participants between the ages of 50 and 93, drawn from multiple nationally representative surveys from 27 countries. 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.”
Overall, the data showed considerable 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. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that women in countries with less traditional attitudes were likely to have better cognitive performance later in life relative to women in more traditional countries.
These analyses suggest that gender-role attitudes may play a notable role in important outcomes for women across different countries, researchers said. “These findings reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities as we show that consequences go
beyond the labour 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 ageing,” he added.