Why Girls Have Worse Mental Health in Equal Societies

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Hold onto your butts everyone! We’re going to talk about the GENDER GAP, and you know how those discussions always go online.

Except…I’m not talking about the gender gap in income, or in STEM, but in (drumroll please) mental health. You may already be aware of some of the facts related to this topic — like how women attempt suicide more often but men succeed at suicide more often. But today I want to discuss a new(ish) paper that found something interesting: adolescent girls have worse mental health in more egalitarian societies. Sort of.

The gender gap in adolescent mental health: A cross-national investigation of 566,829 adolescents across 73 countries” was published back in March in the journal SSM — Population Health, and as the title suggests they surveyed kids around the world about how they’re doing psychologically.

Their perhaps unsurprising finding was that adolescent girls have worse mental health than boys across four outcomes: life satisfaction, psychological distress, hedonia (think of hedonism, “striving to experience pleasure, enjoyment, and comfort”), and eudaemonia (a different form of happiness that is better thought of as seeking growth and meaning in life). If you understand that women spent several millennia being subjugated and remain a second class in one way or another across pretty much all cultures, that’s not exactly shocking. 

What is shocking though is their finding that the difference between girls’ and boys’ mental health actually widens in rich European countries that score higher on gender equality, like Scandinavian countries. The gap lessens in countries with low gender equality like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. In fact, on some measures the gap even reverses, with boys experiencing worse mental health than girls, like in Jordan where boys experience lower rates of life satisfaction compared to girls.

So there you have it — gender equality is BAD for women (and good for men), right? Well, the researchers note that it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. Isn’t it always.

To be clear, this study didn’t really look deeply at the “why” because the first step is to establish that the pattern is actually there. Accordingly, I found the lead research on Twitter and she says their next paper will dig into it. But in the meanwhile, they do throw out some hypotheses in this paper, mostly related to references, expectations, and what truly is considered “equality.”

For a start, when you ask someone how happy they are, they don’t tend to consider that question in a vacuum. That person tends to look around at the people around them and compare their station in life — am I as relaxed, happy, financially secure, upwardly mobile, or satisfied as my neighbor? My brother? My classmate? For adolescent girls in extremely sexist cultures, they are socially segregated from boys so they can really only compare themselves to other adolescent girls. Girls in more egalitarian societies interact with boys more and so may be more likely to compare themselves to other girls and boys. When they do that, they may see boys enjoying a better life than them, because while their society may be more egalitarian in that girls are told they can be just as successful and fulfilled as boys, it’s not quite so egalitarian that they don’t notice that they still face more obstacles than boys, and that sucks!

So on the one hand we have a girl who thinks, “Well, I don’t have a lot of options for my future but that’s life, and compared to other girls I’m doing okay.” On the other hand we have a girl who thinks, “Well, I can pursue all my dreams but compared to the boys I have to work harder and fight through more bullshit, so I’m not doing okay.”

Again, this is just a hypothesis and is not supported by this current study, but the authors point out that this explanation is supported by previous research, like this study from 2002 on “frustrated achievers,” “individuals that experience improvements in wealth but report negative perceived past mobility and lower happiness, as a result of still facing discriminatory practices and barriers to their continued ascent.”

The researchers also point to studies showing that even in egalitarian societies, women are expected to now go into formerly male-dominated industries and hold their own economically while at the same time they are still expected to do more domestic work. Anecdotally, I can confirm that at several points in my life I’ve split the rent and utilities 50/50 while cohabitating with male partners who just will not wash the fucking dishes or clean the god damn toilet. I distinctly recall a fight I had with one partner who insisted I should do all the dishes because I was working from home. He got very upset when I suggested that if I do that I should pay less in rent. I dropped the idea. Later, he also started working from home. I still had to do the dishes. Weird!

(To head off the #NotAllMen comments, allow me to report that I am now in a relationship where I pay half the mortgage and honestly probably do a bit less than 50% of the housework, so.)

I look forward to future studies drilling down on this, but in the meanwhile it is worth keeping this in mind: measures of happiness should not tell us whether or not something is worth doing. Think of it like this: my dog, Indy, is one of the happiest creatures I’ve ever met. His life is incredible. Snugs! Zoomies! Toys! If I had the choice, would I swap places with him? Well, okay, yes, some days I probably would. But his happiness comes at the cost of intelligence and self-awareness. He’s nearly killed himself a dozen times in the past five years because he’s an idiot. Having a higher intelligence may make me more depressed, and it may make my life harder, but it’s also more rewarding. I strive for happiness but not at the expense of understanding, or potential. And even if it made me more “satisfied” in life because I wouldn’t know what I was missing, I wouldn’t trade a more equal society for a less equal society.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. An interesting article about vapes, that doesn’t appear to match the video or title at the top. I think something got mis-matched?

  2. So we can speculate – and I look forward to those follow-up studies – that the true headline should be:

    “Partial Equality Makes Girls Angry”

    To which I can only reply: “Good”.

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