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Women in Countries With More Gender Equality Have Better Cognitive Health

A new study finds that cognitive functioning of women is affected by gender-role attitudes within their country.
Women wave Sweden flags outside the Royal Palace ahead of the wedding of Princess Madeleine of Sweden and Christopher O'Neill that will take place later today on June 8, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The extent of gender equality in a country can affect women’s cognitive health. Such is the conclusion of a new study that looked at how the cognitive functioning of women changed over time based on where they lived.

The lead author of the study, Eric Bonsang of University Paris-Dauphine and Columbia University, said this is the first attempt to shed light on the negative consequences that gender inequality has on women’s health later in life.

“It [the study] 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,” said Bonsang.

Bonsang and his colleagues noticed that women in Northern European countries outperformed men on memory tests. The opposite effect could be observed in the counties of Southern Europe. There were other differences in cognitive scores as well that varied across the continent.

This led the researchers to wonder what would cause such variations. There were economic and socioeconomic factors to consider. The scientists also hypothesized that women living in societies with more traditional gender roles would have less access to education and work and as such would show lower cognitive performance as they got older.

They analyzed the cognitive performance data of participants aged between 50 and 93, drawn from international surveys on health and aging that represented people in 27 countries.

The surveys included episodic memory tasks to measure cognitive performance. To understand a participant’s attitude towards gender roles, the researchers looked at the self-reported agreement with the statement, ““When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”

The results showed a great worldwide variation in gender differences related to cognitive performance. Women had the highest advantage in cognitive performance in Sweden, while the men outperformed women the most in Ghana.

Women in countries that feature less traditional attitudes towards gender roles had better cognitive performance later in life.

“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.”

For their future work, the scientists aim to look in greater specificity at how gender role attitudes impact institutes, politics and the labor market.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Read it here.


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