Some good news for International Women’s Day: Women are (usually) happier than men

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series marking International Women’s Day, on March 8, 2016. Read the latest from Global scholars on bridging the gender inequality gap, the role of the Sustainable Development Goals, and gender-sensitive policies in sub-Saharan Africa.

International Women’s Day provides a marker to reflect on the status of women around the globe and how far we have come in terms of gender rights and status, and how far we still have to go. I am not an expert on gender. Rather I am a development economist who looks at a host of development and public health issues from the lens of well-being metrics. These metrics often confirm what we already know. For example, wealth and health matter a lot to well-being, but so also do other things, such as having purpose and meaning in life, volunteering, and participating in elections, social activities, and sports. And a range of new studies— including my own—find that individuals with higher levels of well-being tend to have better long run outcomes in terms of both health and wealth.

At the same time, the metrics often uncover progress paradoxes. Changes in income alone, for example, do not guarantee increases in well-being. They can even undermine it if the changes are accompanied with a great deal of uncertainty and/or are distributed unequally. The metrics also show that people are typically better able to adapt to unpleasant certainty than they are to uncertainty, even that which is associated with progress (which will likely increase well-being in the longer term). The progress paradox frame is useful in understanding trends in women’s well-being around the world.

In a recent analysis based on global data from Gallup, Soumya Chattopadhyay and I explored the relationship between gender and well-being. We found that, in general, women had higher levels of well-being than men, both in terms of life satisfaction and experienced well-being, measured as having experienced enjoyment or sadness the day before. That is the good part of the story. Yet when we split the world sample into high, middle, and low income countries, we find that women’s well-being is not higher than men in the sample of poor countries, where gender rights are more likely (although not always) to be unequal. We also found that in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where women’s rights are compromised in many countries, women were actually less happy than men.

These general differences are also reflected in related phenomena, such as marriage and having children. Married respondents are typically happier than non-married ones, but this finding does not hold in the low-income country sample in our research. There is some debate on whether or not having children is associated with higher or lower levels of well-being (and whether there are differences across daily experience and life satisfaction more generally). Contributing to this, a new paper by Sophie Cetre, Andrew Clark, and Claudia Senik finds that respondents with children in wealthier countries have higher levels of life satisfaction than those who do not, but the reverse is true in poor countries. Marriage and child bearing are much more of a choice in wealthier countries (and the burden of the latter is increasingly more equally shared), while in poorer countries both getting married and having children are stronger social norms, and women bear the burden of child rearing and are more likely to be trapped in marriages in which they have unequal rights.

Changing gender rights and norms takes time; meanwhile, the process is not always a happy one. The process alters norms and expectations in societies and within households. In the short term, the associated tensions can decrease women’s well-being. A study of women’s rights in Switzerland by Rafael Lalive and Alois Stutzer, for example, found that both life satisfaction and job satisfaction of women in cantons that voted for equal pay for equal work in a 1981 referendum was actually lower after the referendum than it was in those cantons that voted against it! One explanation is that expectations about pay levels were raised and that at least immediate trends did not match them; another is that intra-household dynamics also changed. Over the longer run, though, the trend of declining life satisfaction was reversed.

In the U.S., meanwhile, women’s happiness levels fell in the 1970s and 1980s, precisely at a time that gender rights were improving and women were entering the labor force at unprecedented rates . (Women were still happier than men on average, but the difference between them narrowed). Yet the declines in female happiness reversed by the 1990s. In the early period, full-time female labor force participation (particularly for mothers) was a new and less accepted phenomenon, and there were likely associated costs on women’s well-being. By the 1990s and surely today, it is simply part of the landscape. I will never forget my ambitious 17-year-old daughter, who was aged three at the time, telling her twin brother that when she grew up she was going to drive a car just like mine to work and that he would be staying home with the children!

It does not take much to imagine that these dynamics could be even more painful in contexts where gender rights are severely compromised, which was not the case in either the U.S. or Switzerland. Changing the established status quo and particularly strong norms about gender roles is not easy and has associated costs. While that is a challenge for women in many poor countries, the good news is that these changes have pay-offs in terms of objective benefits such as incomes and civil rights, and also in terms of happiness and well-being. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I hope that the prospect of healthier, more prosperous, and happier lives is within the reach of increasing numbers of women around the world.