It’s not just pay inequality we should be worried about – women’s cognitive abilities are affected by sexism too

Let’s try you. Read the title above once, then cover it and write down word for word what you remember. Having difficulties?

Let’s try you. Read the title above once, then cover it and write down word for word what you remember. Having difficulties? How well you do may be down to which country you live in.

That’s according to a new study, published in Psychological Science, involving an impressive 200,000 women and men from 27 countries across five continents. It revealed that women from more conservative countries performed worse on memory tests than those from more egalitarian countries.

Demographics expert Eric Bonsang and his colleagues analysed national survey data from individuals above the age of 50. They used existing data on cognitive performance tests measuring episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events). These involved recalling as many of ten words read out by a researcher as possible in one minute either immediately or after a short delay. The team rated each country’s level of gender equality by looking at the proportion of people agreeing with the statement: “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”

Women outperformed men on memory in gender-egalitarian countries such as Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, the US and most European countries. However, in Ghana, India, China, South Africa and some more gender-traditional European countries (such as Russia, Portugal, Greece and Spain) the pattern reversed. Women in these countries performed worse than men – which was exactly what the researchers had predicted. Interestingly, men in egalitarian countries also scored better than men in conservative countries (but not by as much).

The findings did not depend on world region or the countries’ economic development (gross domestic product per capita in 2010). A factor that may be at play, however, is that modern countries (such as many of the gender-equal ones above) have better health benefits. Older adults may simply be healthier. But that doesn’t necessary explain the observed gender differences – the study after all found that the effect was stronger for women than for men.

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