Study: Gender inequality increases gender gap in sustained attention control

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Places with less gender equality tend to have a larger gender gap when it comes to attentional control, according to research published in PLoS One.

The study of 11,612 men and 9,872 women from 41 countries found that gender variations in sustained attention control were closely tied to gender equality.

Sustained attention control is the the ability to focus on a task for a prolonged period of time while resisting distractions. The study found that women made significantly more omission errors than men, while men were more likely to wrongly identify items they were supposed to ignore. The differences were small in countries with greater gender equality, but twice as pronounced in countries that scored lower on human development and gender equality indicators.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Elizabeth Riley of Harvard Medical School. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Riley: When we found the gender difference in our data set, we weren’t interested in just publishing it without explanation. We were aware of some literature investigating various causes of gender differences, including things like stereotype threat, cultural expectations and childhood experiences, and we wanted to see whether we could take advantage of the very rich data set we had to uncover any possible causes of the gender difference. In my opinion, delving into WHY gender differences exist is significantly more important (in terms of science and in terms of justice) than simply finding them.

What should the average person take away from your study?

I think what the average person should take from our study is that cultural biases and stereotypes matter, and it seems likely that they can affect individuals very deeply, including how they think. It’s a reminder that if we want to avoid making incorrect conclusions about the capabilities of human beings, we need to understand the biases and stereotypes that affect them.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

My feeling is that this is research, so there are always caveats, and there are a few worth mentioning. First of all, the effect size of sociocultural conditions on the size of the gender gap is small. We do believe our methods likely underestimate the size of the effect, but nevertheless, it’s small. Second, we don’t know the mechanism by which sociocultural conditions of gender inequality result in the particular pattern of error rates we observed – or even if there’s a direct cause and effect relationship, something we couldn’t establish with a correlational study. We have hypotheses, but there’s no way to know for sure without further work.

The study, “Gender Differences in Sustained Attentional Control Relate to Gender Inequality across Countries“, was also co-authored by Hidefusa Okabe, Laura Germine, Jeremy Wilmer, Michael Esterman, and Joseph DeGutis.