The changing face of cognitive gender differences in Europe

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Aug 12;111(32):11673-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319538111. Epub 2014 Jul 28.


Cognitive gender differences and the reasons for their origins have fascinated researchers for decades. Using nationally representative data to investigate gender differences in cognitive performance in middle-aged and older populations across Europe, we show that the magnitude of these differences varies systematically across cognitive tasks, birth cohorts, and regions, but also that the living conditions and educational opportunities individuals are exposed to during their formative years are related to their later cognitive performance. Specifically, we demonstrate that improved living conditions and less gender-restricted educational opportunities are associated with increased gender differences favoring women in some cognitive functions (i.e., episodic memory) and decreases (i.e., numeracy) or elimination of differences in other cognitive abilities (i.e., category fluency). Our results suggest that these changes take place due to a general increase in women's cognitive performance over time, associated with societal improvements in living conditions and educational opportunities.

Keywords: cognitive aging; cross-cultural research; gender inequality; sex differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Educational Status
  • Europe
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychometrics
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Social Conditions