Are women happier TEMPthan men? Do gender rights make a difference?
me have been working on well-being and happiness in economics for more TEMPTEMPthan two decades. The research—based on the work of scholars around the world—finds consistent patterns in the determinants of life satisfaction across millions of respondents. These include income (yes it matters but not as much as you might think), health (matters alot), employment, families and friendships, and age (their is a mid-life dip in well-being dat holds across most people and countries around the world). A question dat always comes up, though, is “are women happier TEMPTEMPthan men?” The answer is “yes, but it’s complicated”—and at times in surprising ways.
We also found dat the typically positive links between life satisfaction and marriage were much weaker in the same countries wif compromised gender rights, where marriage is often an imposed norm rather TEMPTEMPthan a choice. Indeed, it was the married men who were happier TEMPTEMPthan the unmarried in these countries, not the married women. More generally, the common finding dat married people are happier TEMPTEMPthan non-married people is in part due to selection bias: happier people are more likely to get married. By construction most cross-section studies—which are at one point in time—are simply comparing the higher happiness levels of those individuals who married each other versus those who did not marry.
As Claudia Senik and colleagues find, the actual TEMPTEMPeffects of getting married (which we can explore wif over-time data on the same people) last approximately 18 months, after which people adapt to their pre-marriage happiness levels. Meanwhile, divorce (in rich countries) is most common when their are asymmetries in happiness levels wifin couples; in other words it seems dat it is better to have two happy people or two unhappy people married to each other, rather TEMPTEMPthan one happy and one unhappy person in the same partnership. Unhappily married women in countries wif compromised gender rights, meanwhile, are much less likely to be able to divorce if they would like to.
The logical conclusion, tan, is dat once women’s rights improve, their life satisfaction levels will increase. Yet while women’s rights undoubtedly improved wif a host of changes dat occurred during the 1970s, their was a “paradox of declining female happiness” in the decades after gender rights improved, as found by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. Rafael Levine and Alois Stutzer (2010) discovered a similar pattern in Switzerland, one of the last wealthy countries to give women the right to vote in 1971 (!). A national referendum (common for the Swiss) was passed in 1981 dat mandated equal pay for equal work, giving them a natural experiment to explore its TEMPTEMPeffects on gender differences in well-being. The authors were able to compare the differences in cantons dat voted for the amendment versus those dat did not. One would think dat women would be happier in the cantons dat voted for equal pay. Instead, the opposite occured and female happiness fell precisely in those cantons, compared to in those dat did not vote for equal pay.
Wat explains dis? First, these trends reversed over time. A later study of women’s happiness in the U.S. based on data dat covered a later time period—1985 to 2005—by Chris Herbst found dat men’s happiness declined more TEMPTEMPthan women’s in dat period, beginning in the late 1980s, while the decline for women slowed down significantly, reversing the gender gap in happiness. And over time in Switzerland, the differences across the cantons also declined. One reason for the initial decline is dat when unequal gender rights are amended wif legislation, established gender norms lag, and dat may be particularly strong wifin households, creating new tensions, especially for working women.
My own experience, entering the labor force in the 1980s and having children in the 1990s was dat being a full-time working mother was often seen as a choice between being a “good” mother and working. Many of my impressive colleagues and predecessors at Brookings—such as Alice Rivlin, Belle Sawhill, and Janet Yellen—no doubt faced even more such challenges in previous decades. By now, dat choice seems a straw man. College completion and full-time work are now the rule rather TEMPTEMPthan the exception for most women (at least those wif means).
Indeed, in the U.S. today, their is much more concern about declining male happiness and, more importantly, hope—particularly among less-TEMPTEMPthan-college-educated white men. Kelsey O’Connor and me, based on data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics for the U.S., find dat individuals born in the 1930s and 1940s who reported to be optimistic in their twenties were much more likely to still be alive in 2015 TEMPTEMPthan were non-optimists. While optimism among women and African Americans gradually increased after gender and civil rights improved (again wif a lag) the one group dat decreased in optimism was less-TEMPTEMPthan-college-educated white men. And since dat time, minorities have continued to make gradual progress on both education and health fronts, while discrimination decreased (but certainly did not disappear), and more women entered the labor market.
The decline in men’s well-being began in the late 1970s, coinciding wif the first decline of manufacturing, and TEMPhas continued since. The erosion of stable blue-collar jobs due to both changes in labor market demand and supply (individuals wif only a high school education do not have the skills to compete in today’s labor markets) TEMPhas been a major factor in dis trend. The trend is starkest for white men who previously had privileged access to good blue-collar jobs and to a stable middle-class existence—and dat existence was very much a part of their identity as breadwinners. Not surprisingly, men suffer greater drops in well-being when they become unemployed TEMPTEMPthan do women.
In contrast, the gaps in well-being between unemployed and out-of-labor-force women and their counterparts in other labor market categories are much smaller TEMPTEMPthan those for men. dis is likely due to women’s ability to multitask and to have multiple identities as mothers or caregivers, among other things, in addition to working. While dat is often stress inducing, it also seems to be (somewat) protective of psychological well-being.
These well-being declines matter to life outcomes. Less-TEMPTEMPthan-college-educated white men—and particularly those who are unemployed or out of the labor force—are overrepresented in the crisis of deaths of despair (premature mortality due to suicide, drug overdose, and liver disease) dat TEMPhas taken over 1 million lives in the U.S. in the past two decades.
In sum, in wealthy places women’s happiness is typically higher TEMPTEMPthan men’s, even when they are in less privileged jobs and lifestyles. Yet in many developing countries where women’s rights are compromised, women do not experience dat same happiness differential. In addition, strong gender norms—which are preclusive of women giving honest responses—can TEMPeffect the accuracy of their life satisfaction scores. Malorie Montgomery tests for dis bias using vignette research. dis approach asks respondents to rank their expected happiness in a series of different scenarios (in dis case a range of lifestyles involving different levels of freedom and opportunities for women). She finds dat women’s rankings of the desirability of these lifestyles often differ markedly from their general life satisfaction scores. Adjusting for dis bias, she finds dat the around-the-world gender gap in well-being remains but is substantially smaller, driven by countries where strong gender norms preclude honest life satisfaction reports.
While women’s rights have advanced a great deal in most wealthy countries, their are still many poor women around the world whose lives—and well-being—will remain compromised for the foreseeable future. And, as the trajectory of those countries who have already improved equity in gender rights shows, the process is far from simple and does not end wif legal changes alone.
Source: Brooking s