Published: 31-07-2014 13:00 | Updated: 01-12-2015 13:28

Better living conditions increase the cognitive abilities of women

Better living conditions and more equal education opportunities are linked with greater gender differences, which favour women, in certain areas, such as memory, and even out the gender differences in other areas, such as mathematics. These are the findings of a recent study published in the scientific journal PNAS.

Earlier research has indicated that gender differences in mathematics and sciences are smaller in countries where gender equality is greater, which has lead the researchers to conclude that cognitive gender differences will be reduced as a function of increased gender equality. This new study instead indicates that better living conditions and more equal education opportunities seem to be more favourable for the cognitive abilities of women than for those of men, which leads to greater gender differences within certain areas.

“Our research indicates that a higher standard of living and a more gender equal society will improve the general cognitive skills of women more than those of men,” says Agneta Herlitz, Professor of Psychology at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

This research is based on an extensive survey on health and ageing in Europe. More than 31,000 men and women above the age of 50 from 13 European countries participated in the survey, where they were asked questions which test their cognitive functions, including memory, as well as mathematical and verbal skills. According to the results, gender differences in these cognitive abilities are related to the age of the respondent and the country they live in, but also to the living conditions and educational opportunities of their adult life. In regions with relatively good living conditions and equal opportunities in terms of education, the gender differences to the women's advantage in terms of memory proved to be greater, while the advantage of the men in mathematical problems was smaller.

The researchers believe that the improvements in living conditions and educational opportunities contribute to improving the general cognitive functions of women more than those of men, which in turn leads to increases (in memory) as well as decreases (mathematics) of cognitive gender differences. The results thereby indicated that we, in societies with high standards of living and equal education opportunities can expect to see men and women having advantages in various cognitive functions.


The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe

Daniela Weber, Vegard Skirbekk, Inga Freund and Agneta Herlitz

PNAS online 28 July 2014