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How your gender affects your sleep

Tired man waking up in the morning
Credit: iStock.com/andresr

For parents of young children, sleep (or lack thereof) is a common topic – but did you know your gender has an impact on the reason for your lost sleep?

While the ‘zombie effect’ of sleep deprivation can surprise new parents and interfere with work and family life, a new study of couples has found that living in a country with greater gender equality results in better sleep for both men and women.

The researchers say that’s because the traditional roles assigned to mothers and fathers – mothers as principle carers and fathers as breadwinners – have a direct impact on the type of sleep disruption experienced. Children are more likely to disrupt women’s sleep, and worrying about family finances is a disrupter of men’s sleep.

In a survey of 14,143 partnered people from 23 European countries, results showed in 22 of the 23 countries, more women than men reported their sleep was restless in the prior week.1

Women’s sleep was disrupted by children under five, and men reported more restless sleep if they were dissatisfied by their family’s finances. For both men and women, working in a stressful job also disrupted sleep.

Co-author of the study, University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Leah Ruppanner, says the research found both the average woman and man sleep better when living in gender-equal countries.

“What we were asking is does it make a difference if you live in a culture that supports gender equality? So the answer was interesting that women sleep better in countries where there’s more gender empowerment - political and economic equality,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“Sleep is gendered. Our obligations during the day affect our sleep during the night.

“For women it’s family, and men it’s financial. So women sleep better in those gender equal countries, but so do men. That’s what this study finds in essence.  If you live in a country which has gender equality it is more common that everyone sleeps better.”

The countries included in the study were Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, or Ukraine. Nordic countries generally are the most gender equal, followed by northern European countries, with the southern European and postsocialist countries being the most gender unequal.

 
We haven’t talked as a culture about who is entitled to sleep and who is entitled to leisure and why. And more importantly what are the consequences? I think the health consequences are equal for men and women.
Dr Leah Ruppanner

Dr Ruppanner says previous studies showed that men’s commitment to breadwinning, privileged men’s sleep over women’s.

She says earlier studies have shown that within working class American couples both men and women are saying ‘His sleep is more important than mine. I will sacrifice my sleep so that he gets restful sleep because he needs to be at his best tomorrow to bring in the money’.

“It is very interesting because women work as well and sleep is something that is essential for being at your best whether you are working or taking care of your kids.

“If you are at home taking care of your kids and you’re exhausted you’ll be a worse parent because of fatigue.

“We haven’t talked as a culture about who is entitled to sleep and who is entitled to leisure and why. And more importantly what are the consequences?  I think the health consequences are equal for men and women.

“Women aren’t more capable of less sleep. You aren’t a different human being.

“I know I’m a worse parent when I’m tired. We protect co-workers by ensuring men get enough sleep but why don’t we protect the mothers and the children. The work mothers are doing at home is equally as valuable as the work at the office. They are raising the next workforce and citizens. We seem to think only paid work is important.”

Dr Ruppanner says it can be difficult for men too, if they are forced to conform to traditional views of masculinity.

She says men are placed under a great deal of pressure in patriarchal societies which can harm them by expecting them to conform to traditional views, which may cause them to abuse or neglect their health.

“If you imagine that gender is a social construct, you learn what it means to be male or a female,” Dr Ruppanner says.

“If you live in a more traditional culture i.e. homemaker/breadwinner, men bear more responsibility for the family finances than women.

“The idea of masculinity is that men are risk takers, they never get sick, they are always healthy, and they never go to a doctor.

“Masculinity is tied to strength. In more gender traditional cultures men are less healthy, less happy and more prone to risky behaviour. So included in this are that men don’t cry, men don’t get hurt, men don’t get sick or take days off. Men are invincible.

“It’s also tied to what workplaces want. You need workers to be productive, never sick, someone who is always there and always on call, no interruptions and no family demands. You don’t just work full time, you work overtime.

“So if that’s the message you’re getting and not the alternative - men are caring and can express emotions, men can be nurturers, you are more likely to engage in riskier and unhealthy behaviours.

“Although we don’t test this, if there’s a lot pressure and you’re the only one working and you can’t control the GDP and market forces and that’s waking you up at night, if you’re in a country where everyone is expected to share the housework, childcare and share the economic responsibility that takes a big load off men.

“Men in a gender equal country are healthier, happier and less risky in their behaviour. We are now saying in addition to that, they sleep better.

“For women, if you are empowered economically and your voice is equal to that of men you also have the right to stay in bed when the baby cries in the middle of the night.

“You sleep better because you can say to him ‘you’re getting up because I have to work tomorrow too’ because your job is as a co-parent.”

Men in gender equal societies are healthier, happier, less risky and sleep better. That’s great for men. Research shows that women in more gender equal societies have more equal division of housework and childcare and sleep better, so men are getting benefits in terms of their health, women are getting benefits in terms of their time.
Dr Leah Ruppanner

Dr Ruppanner has done previous research into equality in parenting duties and its impact on relationships.

The study which investigated the relationship between parenting inequalities and feelings of relationship quality, found working mothers assumed a larger parenting share, and this inequality had a negative impact on relationship quality – but only under certain conditions. It deteriorated when mothers perceived their parenting division as unfair, or when they felt trapped in their primary carer role. 

“It comes back to who is carrying the mental load. Kids under five are going to wake up because they are predisposed to have variant sleep patterns. Who then is responsible for getting up with them?

“I’m going to bet if you live in a gender equal society that gets more equally shared and we do find that more woman sleep better.

“For men that would increase their sleep disruption. But for men the mental load is about their work and economic providing. If you’re co-sharing everything that becomes less disruptive to their sleep because they’re not the only one having to bring in all the finance for the family.”

The term ‘second shift’ is often used to describe the way women face an unequal load of household responsibilities and end up working a full day either in paid work or as a parent, and then working another shift taking care of the household in a ‘double day’ of work.

Dr Ruppanner says that while men are getting health benefits in more gender equal societies, women are benefitting from time.


[1] Maume, D. J., Hewitt, B. and Ruppanner, L. (2018), Gender Equality and Restless Sleep Among Partnered Europeans. Fam Relat, 80: 1040-1058. doi:10.1111/jomf.12488