Feminism, says McInnes, has made women less happy. Say what? The conversants didn’t bother disguising their chortles at this droll bit of “mansplaining.” Unthinkable! Misogynistic! Tiny penis! Many shared their visceral reactions. “Gavin McInnes Does Not Want Women in the Workplace,” Google screams, “Sad Aging Beardo Hipster No Longer Relevant.” In the aftermath, no one seems particularly interested in discussing whether or why women’s happiness might be declining. Rather, they appear to merely make sure that everyone knows that “feminism” is not to blame and that McInnes is a Bad Person for criticizing it.
Of course, the passion and brouhaha that generally accompanies any less-than-euphoric or more-than-despondent use of the f-word obfuscated much of what McInnes actually said. No, he did not say that women should not be in the workplace, or that we should not have equal rights, or that we are not capable of handling a “man’s job.” What he did say is that many women who try to measure their happiness through masculine achievements will probably be unhappy and frustrated. He, like other contemporary skeptics of feminism, worries that self-interested feminist academics and activists are cloaking their normative preferences of how women and men ought to behave with the Western ambrosia of egalitarianism–and causing confusion and discord in the process.
Even this tempered reading will no doubt offend. It’s not hard to see why. Place yourself in the shoes of a battle-worn feminist who has braved years of cultural stereotypes, heart-wrenching biological trade-offs, and limited support systems to forge a new kind of happiness for herself. Now imagine how you’d react to some cocksure critic saying that price of your (dubious) personal fulfillment is wide-scale female depression. Touchy stuff, and surely too loosely constructed. However, detractors may have too quickly rejected McInnes’ conjecture that our new cultural expectations of women may be a mixed bag for some of our sisters’ unique pursuits.
Set feminism aside for now. Are women really less happy? Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers unearthed some alarming evidence in their landmark paper, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. Despite the phenomenal gains for women in independence, earning, and cultural attitudes, measures of female subjective well-being have been steadily declining–both absolutely and relative to men–for the past four decades. Whether asked about their satisfaction at work, at home, in their marriage, or with their prospects for the future, the trend was the same among the WEIRDos: Women’s subjective well-being sinks as their objective opportunity sets expand.
What is going on here? Traditional cultural bias explains only part of the story. The effect is slightly dulled, but still very strong, in countries with lower levels of measured gender discrimination. What of women’s bemoaned Second Shift? Despite its ubiquity in the public discussion, the time-use survey literature suggests that women’s increased market activity has been met by an equal decline in non-market labor. (Interestingly, research by Alan Krueger suggests that men appear to enjoy their forays into the female sphere more than women enjoy the reverse). And the work-life balance? The same trends have been observed in countries with and without generous maternity and family support policies. What’s more, similar trends have been observed among almost all cohorts: females both old and young, married and divorced, working and staying-at-home have similarly succumbed to increasing despair.
Stevenson and Wolfers are left with more questions than answers. They suggest that broader socioeconomic effects, such as the breakdown in social cohesion, increased anxiety wrought by the increasing complexity of modern life, and economic uncertainty may differentially affect women. Taking a page from Kahneman’s book, they consider whether framing effects might have changed how women define “success” and “happiness” for themselves. Their last suggestion is necessarily brief: might the changes wrought by the women’s movement partially explain the decline in female happiness?
Perhaps part of the paradox of declining female happiness can be explained by this simple paradox of female freedom. With greater opportunities comes a greater number of ways that one can fail or fall short. If this general premise is correct, then cultural attitudes that reinforce this female anxiety to “have it all” may amplify these negative effects on subjective well-being. These largely unrealistic, albeit well-intended, messages of female empowerment and unbounded possibilities may act as a kind of “reverse stereotype threat,” that makes some modern women feel overwhelmed and inadequate.
How might fertility decisions contribute to or be affected by this new female focal point for success? Previous studies suggest that while both genders enjoy time spent raising their children more than time spent at work, women secure a more significant return in happiness to spending time with their children. Similarly, working mothers overwhelmingly report in study after study that they would prefer a part-time job to a full-time job so that they can spend time with their children.
These stated preferences fly in the face of much of the wisdom that was afforded me in my youth: Focus on career and self-discovery first, I was told, and fortunes and family will naturally follow when you’re ready. I’ve since determined that the opportunity costs of this popular advice–namely, the forgone shared foundation, extended time horizons, and interpersonal skills developed through a (modified) old-fashioned courtship–outweigh the benefits to me of having a corner office in the next ten years. I’ve realized that these relationships and experiences may be harder for me to attain as a harried and tiring, albeit established and productive, thirty-something.
By thinking critically about the costs and benefits of my opportunity set and family goals, I believe I have a clearer idea of how I can best get the most out of life–but only time will tell if my assumptions pan out. Of course, my approach will certainly not work for everyone. On the other hand, the established modern wisdom is similarly inadequate to consider the unique nuances of each woman’s dreams, abilities, and risk preferences. By encouraging our brightest young women to prioritize what we think they should want without clearly discussing these trade-offs, might we have set some of them up for a life of relative toil and forgone joy?
The paradox of declining female happiness is likely rooted in many sources. I am skeptical that any one person holds the secret to universal female happiness. I sure as hell don’t–I’m still figuring it out for myself! However, I do know that limiting the parameters of this discussion will necessarily limit the number of viable solutions that we can discover. Should we be weary that a social movement that purports to work on women’s behalf is so averse to any criticism or reflection that some of its methods and messages may be counterproductive? I certainly am.