The Struggle to Explain the ‘Gender Well-Being Gap’

Just in time for Mother’s Day comes new research analyzing surveys that show that women around the world are more likely than men to say they are depressed, lonely, anxious, downhearted, tense, frustrated, sad and experiencing restless sleep. In other words, being a woman — mother or not — is no picnic.

Strangely enough, when surveys get away from particular feelings and ask about happiness and overall satisfaction with life, in many cases women are as positive as or more positive than men. But there may be less to those surveys than meets the eye.

This week I asked David Blanchflower, one of the scholars who did the latest research, how he interprets the contradictory findings. He said you should believe the survey results showing that women’s well-being is worse than men’s. He has a few hypotheses for why women might nevertheless report greater life satisfaction, which I’ll get to.

A paradox that’s harder to explain away, Blanchflower said, has to do with men, not women. Men score higher than women on many measures of happiness. They also do better than women on measures of morbidity such as high blood pressure, pain and lack of sleep. Despite all of that, men have lower life expectancy and are more likely to die from suicide, drug overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver and other diseases of despair. The paradox is that men have lower morbidity (illness) than women but higher mortality (death).

Blanchflower is a British-born economist at Dartmouth College who specializes in labor economics. He served on the rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England from 2006 to 2009. His co-author is Alex Bryson, a sociologist who is a professor of quantitative social science at the Social Research Institute of University College London. Their working paper on the National Bureau of Economic Research website is titled, “The Gender Well-Being Gap.”

Blanchflower said happiness research isn’t as much of a departure from economics and monetary policy as it might seem because the ultimate objective in his field is to make people happy. As for being a man writing about women’s happiness or unhappiness, he said: “I don’t have an ax to grind. I’m a data guy.”

Blanchflower and Bryson looked at 55 subjective measures of well-being contained in eight cross-country surveys from 167 countries. They found that women score higher than men on all negative measures of “affect” (such as depression, loneliness, sadness and anxiety) and lower than men on most positive measures of affect. The gap is apparent “across countries and time,” they found.

However, when they looked at three broad measures of well-being, namely happiness, life satisfaction and a measure called Cantril’s Ladder — which asks people to place themselves on a rung from best possible life to worst possible life — they found that in many studies across countries, women scored as high as or higher than men.

I asked some women what they thought of the seemingly contradictory results. My wife, Ariela Keysar, who has a doctorate in demography, speculated that it might be related to motherhood: Being a mother can be exhausting and stressful, but is ultimately satisfying. Blanchflower wrote back, “Maybe, but we have been checking on women with and without kids and see no difference to this point.”

Marianne Bertrand, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, speculated in an email that women may have lower expectations. “If that expectation is pretty low, or I don’t know how great life could have been, then I am gonna be more likely to say I am satisfied,” she wrote. As for women’s greater likelihood of reporting depression, she wrote, “I think people view it as more OK for women to say they are depressed than for men to say so.” When I ran that by Blanchflower, he responded that women don’t just say they’re depressed; they are more likely to be clinically diagnosed with depression, to be prescribed anti-depressants and to be in pain.

One of Blanchflower’s students, Cailey McVay, wrote to him after class with her own hypothesis, which he shared with me with her permission. She wrote that women arenervous about their status in the workplace because they feel an unfair expectation to “be perfect” and are always preparing for the worst. Despite this, she said, “there are still many things that make women happy and that we are grateful for.”

The paper by Blanchflower and Bryson has its own hypotheses for the contradictions. It says that women “face a world that, even today, is patriarchal — structured by men, for men,” which may make them more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and so on. As for why they nevertheless express relatively high overall satisfaction, the authors speculate that for some of the mothers, “being a good mother or homemaker is a substitute for success at work that men can achieve.” A second hypothesis is that women are more likely to say they’re happy because it’s “appropriate” to say so. A third is something Bertrand said, which is that women “factor in lower expectations and aspirations compared with men.”

This Mother’s Day, try a little tenderness.

The Readers Write

Does your chart about the Black/white unemployment gap mean that Black workers are only hired in large numbers when all other workers are no longer available, and not brought back after a recession until the recovery is well underway? If so is this prima facie evidence of systemic racism?

Bruce Higgins
San Diego

The economists you wrote about said that inflation makes it easier for the government to pay its debts. But inflation impoverishes everyone, as we are seeing currently. People with limited means are cutting back on their spending by necessity. So it’s not that the government is freed from paying the full value of its debt, it’s that we are all paying for the deficits in a different way.

Don Lipkin
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Quote of the Day

“A business firm is not just a piece of society, but a minisociety in its own right.”

— “Introduction to Market-Based Management” (1993), the training manual of Koch Industries, quoted by Christopher Leonard in “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America” (2019)

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