Improved living conditions and educational opportunities reduce cognitive disparities between men and women, claims new research by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
Previous studies have suggested that men are stronger than women in tasks that test visuospatial and mathematical abilities. Women, meanwhile, tend to be superior in tests relating to memory and reading literacy.
Some researchers have suggested that there are biological explanations for the variations in cognitive abilities between men and women, while others claim that societal factors have greater influence over the disparity.
In the new study, the joint team analyzed data from the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which involved more than 31,000 participants over the age of 50 from 13 European countries. In the survey, men and women answered questions that tested memory, mathematical ability and verbal fluency, among other cognitive skills.
Publishing their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the researchers found that gender differences in the participants’ cognitive abilities were linked with age, country of origin, living conditions and the educational opportunities they were exposed to in adulthood.
In regions of Europe that had seen improvements in living conditions and gender-equal educational opportunities, the researchers found that women scored higher than men in memory tests, that there was a smaller gap in mathematical abilities between men and women, and that men and women were equivalent in other tests.
Daniela Weber, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis researcher and lead author of the study, explains that the findings “suggest that if women and men had equal levels of education, then we should expect a female advantage in episodic memory, a male advantage in numeracy, and no gender differences in category fluency (such as naming as many different animals as possible within 1 minute).”
Speaking to Medical News Today, Weber and co-author Agneta Herlitz add:
“Although our study does not directly investigate the reason or explanation for the cognitive gender differences, but rather the societal factors which have an impact on the magnitude of the differences, we expect to find that there always will be gender differences in cognitive abilities.
Most research would suggest that both biological and societal factors are of importance for the pattern and magnitude of cognitive gender differences.”
A 2010 study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, however, found that the math skills of men and women are equal.
In that study, the math skills of 1,286,350 people were assessed as part of a systematic review that looked at studies published in the period 1990-2007.
“There is lots of evidence that what we call ‘stereotype threat’ can hold women back in math,” said lead author Janet Hyde. “If, before a test, you imply that the women should expect to do a little worse than the men, that hurts performance. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Hyde’s study also pointed out that 48% of undergraduate math majors are female: “If women can’t do math, how are they getting these majors?”
MNT asked Weber and Herlitz how the findings of this study relate to their own findings.
They reply that the results are in line with the expectations the pair outline in their study, “given that much of the data in the meta-analysis are from the US or other countries with high living conditions and relatively equal educational opportunities.”
“We interpret it as they are hypothesizing that the differences they find in their meta-analysis are a result of stereotype threat, not that they are actually testing the hypothesis,” they add, referring to Hyde’s suggestion that cognitive disparities between men and women may have a psychological basis.