Gender Equality Supports Happiness and Well-Being
By Andre P. Audette | September 13, 2019
The 2020 Election in the United States has seen a record number of women running for president and hundreds of women running for Congress. Already in the Democratic primary debates, presidential candidates have answered questions about how they would improve gender equality in the U.S., from child care, to paid family leave, to closing the pay gap, and more.
However, these issues go beyond merely political talking points. Electing women to public office means more legislation that benefits the lives of women (and more legislation in general). Hiring women for executive and managerial positions, and paying them fairly, benefits the economy as a whole. And ensuring women have choices in how to lead their lives—economic, social, and political—can signal a net increase of freedom to others around them and can empower others to achieve their dreams.
Ensuring women have choices in how to lead their lives—economic, social, and political—can signal a net increase of freedom to others around them and can empower others to achieve their dreams.
Indeed, our new research, recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, shows that improving gender equality and women’s representation in the public and private sectors can significantly improve life satisfaction for all residents of a country, both men and women.
Gender and Happiness Research
Scholars across academic fields have long been concerned with the effect of politics on human happiness and well-being. Indeed, political thinkers dating back to Aristotle have claimed that the supreme end of politics—and of life as a whole—is to promote human happiness.
Yet there are competing theories of how exactly to go about promoting happiness through politics, especially when it comes to policies related to gender.
Living in a more equal society where one has the ability to choose the circumstances of one’s life would presumably lead to greater happiness. However, some have claimed that public policies promoting inclusion for women actually have the opposite effect—that women who gain the freedom to participate in political and economic life actually become further disadvantaged and more unhappy due to the compounding responsibilities of work and family life, the need for “protection” by men, and other arguments termed “benevolent sexism” by gender scholars. Moreover, scholarly studies of this question have arrived at tentative or mixed conclusions.
What Do the Data Tell Us?
To resolve this puzzle, we examined four of the major measures of global gender equality: the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), the Gender Development Index (GDI), the Gender Inequality Index (GII), and the Gender Gap Index (GGI). These measures encompass a variety of equality indicators, including the percentage of the legislature and managerial positions in a country that are held by women, how long women have held positions in the government, levels of income parity, women’s health data, and education rates for women.
We then examined their effect on life satisfaction in the industrialized democracies around the world (the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). We combined these data with data from the World Values Survey and the Eurobarometer survey, as well as other common predictors of life satisfaction, and we ran a series of statistical models to determine what effect gender equality had on human happiness.
Our results were quite clear: across all four measures, gender equality was shown to significantly improve life satisfaction. Additionally, we find that the effect is quite large; gender equality led to much higher rates of life satisfaction among residents of more equal countries, while countries with less equality reported being less satisfied with their lives.
For one example of what we found, see the graph below:
Figure 1: As gender equality (GEM Score) increases in a given nation, life satisfaction of its residents also increases. The U.S. is middle of the road in both measures.
Countries with greater gender equality can be found on the right side of the graph (such as Denmark), while countries with lower gender equality can be found on the left (such as Japan). Countries with greater life satisfaction, on average, can be found towards the top of the graph and countries with lower levels of life satisfaction can found towards the bottom. The red line indicates the trend.
Our results were quite clear: across all four measures, gender equality was shown to significantly improve life satisfaction.
As you can see, countries with more gender equality tend to be happier, while countries with less gender equality tend to be less happy. The United States appears squarely in the middle with a medium amount of gender equality (at least among the industrialized democracies we studied) and an average amount of life satisfaction.
Does Women’s Happiness Come at the Expense of Men?
We found a similar trend among all the different data sources and years that we examined, but it could be that high levels of overall satisfaction are driven purely by women becoming happier while men see no difference in their happiness or become even less happy as women make gains toward equality.
This is not the case. We broke our results out by gender groups to examine happiness levels among both men and women separately, and we found that gender equality significantly improves life outcomes for both gender groups, albeit slightly more so for women.
What do these findings tell us?
First, they offer clear evidence that gender equality improves life satisfaction, despite the reservations of critics. Second, it demonstrates that equality is not a zero-sum game; that is, benefits to one gender group do not come at the expense of the other. As the common aphorism suggests, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Equality is not a zero-sum game; that is, benefits to one gender group do not come at the expense of the other.
Ultimately, our study offers support for organizations and political candidates working towards gender equality. If one truly wants to increase happiness and well-being among all residents of a country, policies promoting equal pay, fair hiring, and equal representation of women in government and upper-level positions in the private sector can go a long way towards improving peoples’ lives.
While we find compelling evidence to support policies that reduce gender inequality, more research needs to be done in this area.
For comparability purposes, our study only examined the countries commonly referred to as “industrialized democracies”; we still need to extend this research to other countries that are just beginning to make advances in gender parity. Due to data constraints, we also exclusively examined policies promoting equality for women, not for people with other gender identities. Moreover, we have yet to empirically examine the intersection of gender rights with rights of other historically underrepresented groups (race, class, sexual orientation, etc.). However, we suspect that, as our study suggests, equality benefits all—not just the direct beneficiaries of the policy.
If we want to be happier, we should work towards gender equality.
In sum, our research shows that if we want to be happier, we should work towards gender equality. Specifically, we can promote happiness among our neighbors by electing more women to office and hiring women into more positions of leadership in the private sector (perhaps through gender quotas), eliminating the gender gap in pay, instituting policies of paid maternity leave, reducing violence against women, and breaking the glass ceiling for women in corporate, managerial, and leadership roles, among other means. Political choices and public policies can have tangible effects on our lives. Fortunately, as our evidence demonstrates, the choice to strive for equality, justice, and greater representation for women is good for everyone.