Women show cognitive advantage in gender-equal countries.

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Women show cognitive advantage in gender-equal countries.

In fact female advantage in cognitive performance is highest in Sweden, which has the greatest gender equality, according to a new study.

What the researchers say: Women’s cognitive functioning past middle age may be affected by the degree of gender equality in the country in which they live, according to the research.

“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 the lead author. “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.”

The researchers analyzed cognitive performance data for participants between the ages of 50 and 93, drawn from multiple nationally representative surveys including the US 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. Together, the surveys provided data for a total of 27 countries.

The researchers noted 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,” they said.

While economic and socioeconomic factors likely play an important role, the team also studied 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.

All of the surveys included an episodic memory task to measure cognitive performance. Participants responded to a list of 10 words and were asked to recall as many words as they could immediately; in some surveys, participants also were asked to recall the words after a delay. Additionally, some surveys included a task intended to assess 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.”

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 researchers hypothesized 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. The researchers also noted that changes in gender-role attitudes within a country over time were associated with changes in women's cognitive performance relative to men.

Although the data are correlational in nature, several more detailed analyses point toward a causal relationship. The analyses suggest that gender-role attitudes may play a notable role in important outcomes for women across different countries,” say to the researchers.

So what? “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,” say the researchers. “It also shows how important it is to consider seemingly intangible influences, such as cultural attitudes and values, when trying to understand cognitive aging.”

At this point I have to register a very strong interest: I am a male and I am married to a very, very smart female.

The most interesting things about this study—outside of the relationship between smarts and gender equality—are the questions that are left unanswered. For example we know that intelligence and cognitive ability—especially IQ—are strongly genetic. It would seem from this study that inequality influences the expression (the way they function) of these genes.  Is this true? Also is it the case generally that the more equality, the more intelligence? Some other recent studies have supported this idea.

Gender inequality is only one form of the problem and the earlier studies have shown a similar relationship between equality and intelligence in such areas as income, race, and class.

Though gender inequality is lessening in many countries (though currently going backwards in the US) income and class differences are increasing. This is dangerous as it may well lead to a super-rich class of intelligent humans and a vast underclass of less intelligent individuals.

What now? I would like to see less emphasis on just promoting gender equality, especially in businesses (though I’m all in favor of that). We should be eliminating inequality in all areas. Perhaps starting with the egregious differentials in wealth and opportunity and between the top and bottom of the pay scales. Doing that, if this and other studies are to be believed, will help raise the intelligence level of society as a whole.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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