From Mad Men to sad women

8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Kate Scrivens of the OECD’s Statistics Directorate looks at why women’s overall reported happinness has declined.

One of the most popular television shows on at the moment – “Mad Men” – portrays the lives of advertising executives in the early 1960s. It’s a world where doctors encourage smoking, lunchtime drinking is the norm, and the roles of men and women are very clearly and separately defined. Watching it is a reminder of just how much attitudes have changed in the last half-century, not least in terms of the vastly expanded options available to women today at home and in the work place.

The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s revolutionised female aspirations. Science helped too: birth control allowed women greater control over their sex lives, and innovations such as the vacuum cleaner and the ready-made meal reduced the time spent in household chores. Women today are better paid and better educated than ever before. In a special issue entitled “We Did It!” the Economist reported in 2009 that female labour force participation had hit a record high, with women taking over 50% of all jobs in the United States. Women today seem to be freer than at any other time in history.

And yet, at a time when gender gaps in so many domains are closing or becoming obsolete, a new one has emerged. Studies in North America and Europe have shown that while in the 1970s women reported much higher subjective well-being than men, women’s overall happiness has declined in the last four decades, both in absolute terms and relative to men. What can explain the seeming paradox that during a period when women’s lives have improved so much using objective measures, they have become less contented with their lot?

One possible explanation is the ‘second shift’ phenomenon. While women represent an increasing share of the market workforce, they have also retained the bulk of domestic responsibilities, leading to an overall increase in the amount of work they do. Women returning home from their paid jobs then effectively begin a second shift of unpaid housework such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. In all OECD countries, women spend more time than men – an average of two-and-a-half hours more – on unpaid work (the 2011 edition of “Society at a Glance” will include a special chapter on unpaid work). Perhaps women are less happy with their lives because they have taken on more work?

 In fact, as the level of women’s employment increases in a country, men tend to contribute more to unpaid work duties. This means that in terms of total hours worked (paid and unpaid) there is actually little difference between men and women, and so the ‘second shift’ explanation may not hold. However, not all tasks are equally enjoyable – women may be unhappier relative to men because they spend more time doing less pleasurable activities. For example, while both men and women participate in childcare, women tend to spend more time in physical routine tasks like feeding, bathing and changing diapers. Men, on the other hand, tend to take on more of the fun stuff such as reading and playing. In a 2007 paper, Alan Krueger showed that between 1966 and 2005, men have experienced an overall increase in pleasurable activities, while for women the share of time spent in pleasurable activities remained more or less the same.

The change in the proportion of time spent on pleasurable activities might explain why women’s happiness has not increased, but doesn’t account for a decline in and of itself.  However, the comparison with men’s activities just might.  With equality of opportunities, women have higher expectations now, and may now need more to be happy. Whereas in earlier times women may have compared themselves primarily to other women, their reference group now includes men.   Although the gender gap has closed in many areas, there are still plenty of examples of lower outcomes for women, such as average wage levels.

The increasing complexity of women’s lives is another potential source of declining happiness. With more opportunities come more responsibilities and potential stress. If women feel pressure, or put pressure on themselves, to excel in every aspect of their lives, they may be less satisfied now than when home life was their sole or primary realm. It could also be that women have been more negatively affected than men by other broad social trends such as decreased social cohesion, increasing income inequality, or higher divorce rates.

One of the consequences of easier access to divorce has been an increasing proportion of sole parent families headed by women.  A number of studies have shown that caring for children has a negative impact on happiness holding everything else constant.  This might also contribute to the gender happiness gap. 

However, it also points to the limitations of happiness as an all-encompassing measure of how well things are going.  By way of contrast, if one looks at measures of having a sense of “meaning or purpose in life”, one finds that having children is a good thing.  People with children are much more likely to feel they have a sense of meaning or purpose in life.

The gains made by the women’s movement in moving towards gender equality have been staggering, and women continue to show by the choices they make in their lives that they embrace the range of opportunities now available to them. Perhaps what equal opportunity has brought women, is not so much happiness, as the right to search for it. 

Useful links

OECD work on gender



Cooking, Cleaning and Volunteering: Unpaid Work Around the World, Veerle Miranda, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 116 (2011).

The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 2009, 1:2, 190-225.

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2 comments to “From Mad Men to sad women”

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  1. carole - 14/03/2011 Reply

    Everything is said in the article … “Happiness”of women isn’t based on access to working or financial ‘s freedom.
    The woman has been and will always remain the pillar of family ; the person who is in charge of fulfilment, education and organised way of life at home (even for single parent).
    Achieving a perfect balance between work, home and family remains very difficult today.
    Tiredness, stress, overwork and especially an under-esteem (due to the fact of never being valued for his work – because this should be “natural”) for my point of view is the result of such sadness.

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