Gains in women's rights haven't made women happier. Why is that?

May 18, 2016

Women are outliving men in every country in the world, despite facing higher levels of poverty than men, greater odds of encountering sexual violence and many additional, diverse forms of discrimination.But while women are living longer, it’s unclear whether their wellbeing is showing comparable strides. As women gain political, economic and social freedoms, one would expect that they should feel even more contented relative to men. But this isn’t so.

 

The “paradox of declining female happiness” was pointed out by economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, who also happen to share a house and kids. They analyzed the happiness trends of US citizens between 1970 and 2005 and found a surprising result.

 

Stevenson and Wolfers discovered that American women rated their overall life satisfaction higher than men in the 1970s. Thereafter, women’s happiness scores decreased while men’s scores stayed roughly stable. By the 1990s, women were less happy than men. This relative unhappiness softened after the turn of the century, but men continue to enjoy a higher sense of subjective wellbeing that is at least as high — if not higher — than women’s.

 

Those 35 years saw advances in American women’s rights and financial power. For example, in 1974, Congress outlawed credit discrimination based on sex; in 1975, states were prevented from excluding women from juries. Until 1976, marital rape was legal in every US state. Over the 35-year period, women working full time went from earning less than 60% of a man’s median salary to earning about 76% of it — still an embarrassment for a country that aspires to be a meritocracy but an improvement nonetheless.

 

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