The gender wage gap, continued attacks on women’s health care, the pervasiveness of gender-based violence—these are just a few of the reasons why we need to smash the patriarchy. Recently, researchers out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health gave us one more. According to a study published this summer in the Psychological Science journal, women who live in countries that actually care about gender equality tend to be smarter.
Gender-role attitudes are hugely important in a society. For one thing, researchers write, they are “likely to affect the way men and women, over the life course, engage in education, labor-force participation, and other occupations that have been demonstrated to buffer against cognitive decline.”
In order to better understand how gender inequality impacts women’s health later in life, the study’s authors turned to a number of nationally representative surveys, focusing on data for individuals 50 and older in 27 countries. These surveys measured cognitive performance by asking participants to read a list of 10 words and recite back as many as they could remember within a minute. To figure out gender role attitudes, researchers focused on how participants responded to the statement, “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.”
After analyzing the tests, researchers found, unsurprisingly, that women who lived in countries such as Ghana, India, and China with more traditional gender attitudes—that is, the wife takes care of the house and babies while the husband makes the money—scored lower than men. Adversely, women who lived in more gender-egalitarian countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, the United States, and the Netherlands, scored higher.
“This study showed that culturally transmitted gender-role attitudes help to explain the impact of education and labor-force participation on later-life cognition in women in different countries,” the authors write. “The results are consistent with the interpretation that less traditional gender-role attitudes increase the likelihood of women participating in higher-level education and subsequent participation in the labor force. And education and labor-force participation have been found to serve as mental stimulation that increases the level of cognitive functioning.”
In other words, if governments and other institutions embraced the idea of women working outside of the home—meaning, championing equal access to education, health care, etc.—they may create environments that push women to thrive intellectually.
Vegard Skirbekk, a professor of population and family health at Columbia University’s Aging Center and an author on the study, says one of the reasons why it’s important to shed light on the adverse consequences of gender inequality on women’s health later in life is because “unequal gender norms and attitudes debilitate the level of cognitive performance of 50 percent of the population. This has major implications for the productivity of any society. It also has implications for when women are reaching dysfunctional levels of cognition.”
In a statement, lead author Eric Bonsang, of University Paris-Dauphine and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, noted that their study’s findings “reinforce the need for policies aiming at reducing gender inequalities.” Skirbekk adds: “We would [also] like to make women aware of the enormous impact of such attitudes that others hold but that women themselves may have internalized on their cognitive capabilities. Becoming aware of such ‘invisible’ connection may help women to break the spell.”
On a hopeful note, the study also suggests there may be “further improvements in the relative position of women in terms of cognitive functioning at older age,” considering the “current trend toward more equal gender-role attitudes among younger cohorts in many countries.”
But considering the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a 20-week abortion ban, and the Trump administration just rolled back an important the birth control mandate, American women may not see those cognitive improvements anytime soon.