Gender equality gives a lot of clear advantages to societies that prioritize it. The European Institute for Gender Equality points out, among many other benefits, the greater wealth that comes from more women participating in the economy and better profit margins for businesses. World Bank explains that more gender-equal societies have less poverty and stronger political and social systems. But there’s an intriguing new facet to add to these benefits: gender equality makes women smarter.
According to a new study from Psychological Science, women in more gender-equal societies demonstrated improved cognitive abilities, at least when it came to their marks on specific cognition tests. The scientists behind the study wanted to test if women who’d grown up in more gender-equal societies, whether it had been like that from childhood or became more equal over time, would perform better on cognition tests than women who had not grown up in an equal environment.
By looking at the cognitive test results of older women and men in different countries, and pairing them with how well the countries themselves do on gender equity, the scientists built up a picture that shows that more gender equality means a healthier brain for women. The method used by the scientists behind the study, from Columbia University and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, was pretty simple. It looked at 27 countries and analyzed cognitive performance data for men and women aged between 50 and 93 from all of them.
The men and women were given some cognitive tests: one where they were given a list of 10 words and then asked to recall them immediately, and another which asked them to name as many animals as possible in 60 seconds. The first one tests for episodic memory, which is memory based in experience, while the second looks at executive function, which is part of the brain’s “higher” levels of functionality and involves planning, focus and working memory (memory that acts as a short-term holding bay for information). Both are pretty universal indicators of brain performance.
They also examined the countries themselves and their histories of gender equity and women’s rights. The male and female participants also had to tell the scientists how much they agreed with the statement, “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women,” to see what their own ideas about gender equality might be.
The results were intriguing: the more gender-equal the country was, the better women did on the cognitive tests compared to men. In the most equal countries, women did better than men.
Why did the study look at older men and women? They’ve had the most exposure to their society’s structures and life experience in general, from education to having kids to starting businesses and having illnesses. And that, according to the scientists, seems to add up. “Cognition in later life,” they wrote, “cannot be fully understood without reference to the opportunity structures that sociocultural environments do (or do not) provide.”
This isn’t the first study of its kind. In 2014, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA looked at cognition in Northern Europe, where Scandinavian countries operate on famously gender-equal lines. It focused particularly on math and science, and found something interesting: previously, scientists had thought that the gap between genders in those subjects would simply close as equality gained traction.
However, as Northern Europe became more equal, the study found, women started to do better in some cognition tests than men, and virtually eliminate any gaps in others. The scientists behind that study thought that women benefit more from the sort of societal shifts that create equality than men, allowing them to leapfrog male test subjects.
This new study took that idea, and showed that it applies beyond Northern Europe, across a huge range of countries. Essentially, it proposed a global rule: the more gender-equal a country is, the better women will do on cognitive tests of specific brain functions, to the point where they outperform men.
Women’s cognitive capacity can be a tricky topic to talk about, because it’s hardly as if women from gender-unequal societies are stupid; every historical female groundbreaker from Marie Curie to Ida B. Wells achieved great things, despite living within intensely sexist structures. However, what the scientists behind the new study wanted to emphasize was the connection between environment and cognition, and how creating a gender-equal environment improves women’s cognitive function.
Equality, science continues to prove, isn’t just a buzzword. Raising the status of women gives them better access to education and healthcare, more control over reproductive rights, and greater ability to join the workforce. And those factors, according to results like these, add up into greater cognitive capacity for women overall. The thing about brains is that they’re not static; they can change and grow. Giving them more stimulation, from college to high-level jobs, improves their cognitive performance, and environments with more of that around for women give them better brains.
There are other factors beyond education, reproductive control and work that could play into this, too. Experiencing or anticipating sexist treatment in a society, from everyday micro aggressions to unequal opportunities, all the way to assault, takes a serious psychological toll.
Studies have consistently revealed that the stress of everyday sexism, even in more gender-equal societies, has high mental health tolls for women, and the impact is particularly serious for those encountering other kinds of discrimination too (LGBTQ women, women of color and women with disabilities, for instance). Unfortunately, we also know that stressors can inhibit cognition.
In June 2017, a host of new studies were published in Frontiers In Psychology emphasizing the many different ways in which chronic stress affects the brain, none of which are positive. The pressures of living in a sexist environment are likely cognitively damaging for women for precisely this reason — even if women themselves aren’t necessarily aware of it.
Chalk up another benefit for being a feminist: you’re working for a society that makes you actively smarter into old age. That’s one hell of a tangible benefit. Needless to say Gender Equality has far reaching implications as it alleviates poverty and promotes economic growth.
(Author is Doctoral Scholar, Uttarakhand State Open University, Uttarakhand.)