Monday, September 14, 2009
By Pelle Billing
One of my core principles when discussing gender issues is that we need to trust facts and research more than we trust ideology. In my experience, it is quite common for facts and research to fly in the face of commonly accepted ideological “truths” that have been repeated to the point that many people regard them as facts.
Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, recently published a very interesting research report about the subjective happiness of men and women. If you want to you can read the whole paper, but the most important findings are summarized in the abstract:
By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.
These results are very interesting. What the research shows is that as women have entered the workforce, their subjective happiness has declined. Contrary to what is politically correct, women were happier when they were housewives than they are nowadays. How can we explain these results?
Working outside the home is not as glamorous as feminism would have us believe. Many jobs are exhausting without offering a large monetary reward.
Many women are torn between the feminist expectation to work fulltime throughout life, and their own desire to work part-time when the children are small.
Young women are taught that they can have it all: a successful career, a loving relationship, beautiful children and interesting vacations. In reality, life is much more messy and you often need to sacrifice what is important to you in order to achieve something that is even more important to you. Impossible standards lead to unhappiness.
The researchers themselves also have an interesting theory about the declining happiness of women:
First, there may be other important socio-economic forces that have made women worse off. A number of important macro trends have been documented—decreased social cohesion (Putnam, 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge, 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker, 2006). While each of these trends have impacted both men and women, it is possible for even apparently gender-neutral trends to have gender-biased impacts if men and women respond differently to these forces. For example, if women are more risk averse than men, then an increase in risk may lower women’s utility relative to that of men.
In effect, what they are saying is that women and men have had certain roles for thousands of years, and our biological and cultural makeup have adapted to those roles. Sudden changes to those roles may cause a stressful reaction in either sex, and according to this research women’s liberation has actually been more stressful to women than to men.
So what can we learn from this research report? First of all it informs us that the traditional gender roles gave women a higher subjective happiness than men, a finding that flies in the face of feminist theory. Second of all, it is inviting us to admit once and for all that there are innate differences between the sexes, and that gender equality does not necessarily mean gender sameness. This is not to say that we should go back in time and re-create stereotypical gender roles that offer little freedom to either sex. It simply means that the project to make men and women exactly the same is a futile one, and a better strategy would be to support men and women in their individual choices, and in having the lifestyles that they desire. If we do that, instead of shoving radical feminism down people’s throats, chances are that the subjective happiness for both sexes would increase.
Pelle Billing is an M.D. who writes and lectures about men’s issues and gender liberation beyond feminism.