Monday, October 01, 2007

The Happiness Gap

Last week I talked about the emergence of an income gap between women and men, and how rising paychecks often cause guilt, stress and conflict in romantic relationships. Now, studies have emerged showing that despite the fact that women are making more money and gaining power in the workplace, men are more satisfied and happier than women are.

It's a fascinating study, especially when you compare the data to earlier studies. I was surprised to see that since the 1960's, women's happiness rates have gone down. You'd think the feminist movement and all the opportunities that opened up to women as a result would lead to an increase in happiness, now that women can pursue their educational and professional goals. But instead of replacing housework with paid work, women are still expected to do both, and are disappointed with themselves when they can't succeed in every area.

A woman in the 1960's might have been judged harshly for her ability to keep a beautiful home and raise well-adjusted children, but today's women have the added burden of being judged on their professional successes as well, with one's ability to juggle responsibilities as key to gaining the approval of others. It's hard to stay happy while working under that much pressure.


The authors of the study raise the point that three decades ago, women had smaller ambitions. They compared themselves to other women, not to men. Today's working women compare themselves to stay at home moms who have far more time to devote to childrearing and homemaking activities, and full-time working dads, who spend most of their time working. There simply aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish it all.

On top of all this, women are regularly judged on the basis of their looks, so dressing well and looking attractive at all times is an added burden that men don't experience. Researchers found that the happiness gap extended to high school students, where overachieving girls spent a lot of time worrying that they weren't pretty or sexy enough, despite their successes in academics and extracurricular activities.

Another issue that isn't raised in the article is the importance women place on relationships. It's not that men don't care about relationships, but women spend far more time than men worrying about what others think of them, avoiding conflict in relationships, and trying to be there for everyone in their lives. I'm referring to all relationships inside and outside the home, and for working women, that's a lot of people to please.

I don't think anyone would argue that women were better off pre-women's lib, but it's interesting to analyze how an increase in equal rights, opportunities, power and respect has led to increasing pressures on women. Our society still has a lot of catching up to do to balance out the expectations placed on men and women. When the day comes that men are judged on their looks, their ability to cook, clean and keep a beautiful home, their children's successes AND their paycheck, I guarantee that the happiness gap will have evened out.

20 comments:

Deja Pseu said...

Good points, Meg. Part of the problem too is that overall, the workplace hasn't changed. For the most part, our corporate environment is structured on the "breadwinner" model, where it's assumed that one has domestic support at home, and the hours and expectations for workers are set up accordingly.

Kelly Mahoney said...

I think because we put as much pressure on ourselves as society does, we're constantly trying to acheive the next level of "success" and rarely savor what we've already accomplished.

Vonnie said...

Very good post, and not all that surprising. Women are expected to have it all, be it all to everyone, and look gorgeous while being a sexpot at the same time. It's crazy pressure.

cate said...

I think that you are 100% right on here, Meg. Your points here highlight to me why feminism is still important. The women's rights movement got us to the point where traditionally male careers were acceptable venues for us; however, only in addition to our traditional female roles, rather than instead of. This is a huge and important distinction, and it's impact is felt by all women. Stay-at-home moms feel as though they shouldn't ask for help from their spouses because they don't "work" (and I think we can all agree that raising children is, put simply, a 24 hour a day job). They also compare themselves to women who work, and either judge themselves as either "better than" or "worse than" these women, depending on their mindset. You've already explained what working women face. This is why it's so vital that all women work to create an attitude of acceptance, and a true promotion of CHOICE. Right now, for the majority of women, the choice is either both or staying at home. We have to really work together (by doing something as simple as not judging other women for their choices) so that a third choice opens up: working.
Sorry to go on for so long, but this is the primary problem I see facing women today. Thank you so much for bringing this extremely feminist issue to the fore.

Paula said...

Meg, great post!

I've been struggling with all these things *since* the 60s--look good, make money, run a nice home, and please everybody, all at the same time, all the time.

Happiness? Not so much.

The secret is exactly what your other posters have guessed: NO WAY is all this possible, all the same time.

Women thus have to make harsher choices than men. Do you not have children at all because workplaces are petty and inflexible, or do you spend career time fighting the stupid policies there while raising toddlers? Squeeze your family into a 1,000 square foot apartment so a parent can afford to stay home? Accept that one spouse or the other will have to tough it out in a loathed job because of the health insurance benefits?

This is some tough calculus, folks. Really harsh choices are still as good as it gets, media images of so-called "success" notwithstanding.

EthidiumBromide said...

It doesn't surprise me in the least that women are more unhappy now than they were in the 60s. Women now want everything -- home life, personal life, family life, career life -- but you just can't have everything. Men have figured this out, which is why the powerful men generally have a wife at home to take care of the family, and can focus on careers. Women, however, take on more than they can handle, and then complain.

I'm sorry, but I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing women complain about how hard it is to be a women. I am female in science.. more specifically, medicinal chemistry. It is a male-dominated field, and most of the other female scientist that I know bitch and moan about how tough it is to be a women in the sciences. You know what? If you can't handle it, quit. Of course men look down on women in the workplace because all they do is hear us complain and whine. I'm sure most people disagree with me, but frankly, if you can't handle the field you are in, then find a new job. I'm not saying my life is remotely easy, but I made the decision to be a scientist, a wife, and someday, a mother, and it is my responsibility to figure out how to handle it. If you bite off more than you can chew, it's only your own fault.

Kai Jones said...

Well, ethidiumbromide, pretty to think so, but if everyone acted as you suggest, we would still have slavery. Recognizing that a system is broken and changing it is a positive and mature response. There's a reason why the feminist movement came up with the slogan, "The personal is political," because if we all sit in our heads imagining that all challenges we face are individual and not systemic, nothing will ever change.

Deja Pseu said...

Men have figured this out, which is why the powerful men generally have a wife at home to take care of the family, and can focus on careers.

But here's the thing: men have that choice; the vast majority of women don't.

And most women who are juggling family and work aren't working for some elite notion of "personal fulfillment," they're working because they have to, to provide for their families. That's the angle that usually gets lost in these NYT "trend" articles where it's assumed that all working women are white, upper middle class professionals.

knoxwhirled said...

Recognizing that a system is broken and changing it is a positive and mature response.

What's broken? Seriously, what do you suggest we do? Should women with kids be able to work part-time while still making a full-time salary? Should they have maids and nannies subsidized by the government so they can work full-time? Should husbands be forced to do the housework? OK... but then who watches the kids while he's doing it?

What you're complaining about are just the inconveniences of life. Women have come to view them as some sort of "systematic" problem that can somehow be solved. It's just life!

So many women are unhappy simply because they don't want to accept that in life, you have to make sacrifices. Part of growing up and becoming "mature" is realizing that.

If you want to make yourself miserable because your house isn't "perfect" or you don't have time to look "perfect" or your husband isn't "perfect" ... it's your choice to do so. And you will be unhappy and bitter because you're asking for the impossible.

knoxwhirled said...

I should add that as far as all the "judging" that goes on, it's women who are each other's harshest critics. If women feel like they are under pressure for how they look or how their house looks, that pressure is coming from other women -- most men don't tend to notice if your roots are showing or if you've had your pedicure. Or whether there's dust under the coffee table.

I agree with Meg that beauty standards are raising to unreachable levels and that sucks. But, you know, just do what you can, and move on. Honestly, no one's going to look at you and say "She's hideous!"

Katherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine said...

Actually, there may not be a happiness gap: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004969.html

It is a male-dominated field, and most of the other female scientist that I know bitch and moan about how tough it is to be a women in the sciences. You know what? If you can't handle it, quit. Of course men look down on women in the workplace because all they do is hear us complain and whine. I'm sure most people disagree with me, but frankly, if you can't handle the field you are in, then find a new job.
It is tough to be in a field if you're in a vast majority--not just for women, but for men trying to enter fields that are traditionally viewed as "women's work" (see: male nannies, male nurses). The thing is, it isn't true that the majority looks down on the minority just for complaining. You can work just as hard as anyone else, maybe even harder, but that doesn't guarantee anything: that you'll get that promotion, or that you can even do just as well as the majority. That's a systemic flaw, and since it has absolutely nothing to do with the work you have to do, it needs to be changed. Obviously, if you're not good at chemistry, don't become a chemist--but as it is, there are other factors on how far you can go as a chemist beside your actual skills, which is the issue.

What's broken? Seriously, what do you suggest we do? Should women with kids be able to work part-time while still making a full-time salary?...What you're complaining about are just the inconveniences of life. Women have come to view them as some sort of "systematic" problem that can somehow be solved. It's just life! So many women are unhappy simply because they don't want to accept that in life, you have to make sacrifices.
Feasible changes aren't that hard to think of, actually. The only thing that we really can't get around is the whole "only women can get pregnant" issue, but except for a couple of months there, I think most things are up for grabs. For example, giving fathers to take paternity leave so that they can take care of infants after the mothers recuperate and go back to work (if they want to, of course). Also, flexible scheduling. There are many instances of work hours being unnecessarily inflexible, which interferes with all sorts of lifestyles.

As far as I can tell, there's nothing in having two X chromosomes that determines an inability to accept that life is difficult. The issue is that life is unfairly, unevenly difficult for men and women, and that's something that needs to change.

Kai Jones said...

What's broken? Seriously, what do you suggest we do?

Change our expectations, change our definitions of success. Why is it that a woman has to do it all--cook, housekeeper, mother, high-paid job--to be considered a success? Who teaches us to judge ourselves so harshly?

Anonymous said...

I'd still rather be a woman.

I think women really need to think twice about having children in this rat race life we lead.

Elizabeth said...

Heads up: some of the feminist blogs have accused the NY Times of using lazy data to support what sounds like a reasonable assumption (there's plenty for women to be unhappy about) but is part of the NY Times' happy history of blaming feminism for unhappy women.

Not that it's any less important to talk about the stuff you mentioned, but let's remember this is the paper that dusts off its "The Opt-Out Revolution" article every year to tell college girls that all their classmates are just going to be housewives.

Deja Pseu said...

Elizabeth is right. Echidne (who is, I believe, a statistician by training) takes this one apart nicely. (Scroll down to post "Gender Happiness Gap")

http://echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com/

knoxwhirled said...

For example, giving fathers to take paternity leave so that they can take care of infants after the mothers recuperate and go back to work (if they want to, of course). Also, flexible scheduling.

More to the point: how is it more "fair" to force my boss--or to my coworkers who have chosen NOT to have kids--to accomodate my lifestyle choices?

Life is not unfairly, unevenly difficult for men and women. It's just different. There are probably men who wish they had the ability to have kids or to stay home with them. Unfair? Maybe, but that's life.

Change our expectations, change our definitions of success.

Who's stopping you? Seriously, once you are an adult you shouldn't base your self-esteem on external definitions of success that you yourself perceive to be unrealistic or unfair. Again, part of growing up.

Why is it that a woman has to do it all--cook, housekeeper, mother, high-paid job--to be considered a success?

Who says you have to do it all? If you want to try to actually spend time with your kids and raise them well ... AND perform 100% at a "high-paid job" It's your choice. But believe me, it's going to be hard. NOTHING will change that, unless you can figure out how to be cloned. And unless you married a total ass who refuses to help, it will be just as hard for your husband too. (Not sure why there's a perception that men get off free in all this.)

Who teaches us to judge ourselves so harshly?

Doesn't matter. Just stop doing it. You'll be "happier."

Anonymous said...

I thought the article was interesting in how people perceived themselves, set their own limitations, agreed to bend over for society's expectations. Stupid women, not because they're women, but because they're stupid. The only way society changes is if we change it. So to complain about society's expectations and then bend over is beyond stupid.

I'm a feminist and proud of it. I'm a feminist in the sense that I make my own choices. I embrace all the choices available to us -- whether society approves or not. Each one of us can do that. It's really that simple. Who wants to be liked, dated, befriended, etc., for what you truly aren't? I'm not saying go out and be rude or mean. But live, really live.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as post script to the message above:

I've been happily married for nearly 15 years. Great husband. Sometimes he's made more than me, sometimes not. Never any trouble with money between us. Many people seem deluded about relationships: You can't ever change someone else. So if you're going to spend lots of time (maybe your life) with someone, picking someone who shares your values is the biggest favor you can ever do for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Post post script, sorry:

I was just at my brother's wedding. First marriage for both, in their 30s.

During his toast, my brother thanked all those who'd really touched his life.

He said I was the strongest woman he knows and that the advice I'd given him over the years made him the man he is today. I think that might've been the proudest moment of my life. I share that because each of us has the opportunity to change expectations in society. I helped shape my brother into a man worth marrying. We can all do that in life. Make our choices count.