Gender Inequality Extends Even Into Our Sleep

But a new study shows that both men and women sleep better in countries where women hold more economic and political power.

Six variations on a couple sleeping in bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

My daughter started disrupting my sleep before she was even born. I remember lying in bed with a baby dancing on my bladder while trying to get my last few months of “uninterrupted” sleep. With an infant, I craved sleep and complained to friends, neighbors, and strangers about the lie of “sleeping like a baby.” I coslept with my daughter so my husband could wake up feeling refreshed for work. With no parental leave, he was back to work full time when our daughter was just 2 days old. I felt superior in my decision to not let a newborn ruin both our nights.

As my daughter grew older, she woke me up when she was sad and had bad dreams, as well as during the two weeks when she decided morning started at 3 a.m. All the while my husband would stay in bed and sleep. And unsurprisingly, now at 8 years old, she wants me to lie in bed with her and whisper about our days before she falls asleep. Sacrificing my own right to sleep, I thought, was the glory of motherhood, a consequence of our deep connection that tethers daughter to mother during waking and sleeping hours.

But it turns out I was actually just replicating a common, unequal sleep regime. Sleep time, much like our waking hours, is structured by socially constructed gender norms. Studies of sleep show that men often express a greater right to sleep to recover and prepare for the next day’s work. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to have young children disrupt their sleep and to stay up worrying about children’s safety or their return home after curfew.

But this doesn’t mean all is sweet dreams for men. Worrying over family finances also keeps men awake at night. A study of working-class American couples showed that men who reported difficulty falling or staying asleep cited concern about the family finances or the next day’s work. Both men and women in these couples said men were more entitled to restful sleep than women because men were more responsible for the family’s finances. In other words, men needed to “be at their best” for work the next day, so their sleep was given primacy.

This is not to say that working women do not also experience sleep disruption due to the demands of their jobs. People who spend more time at work spend less time sleeping, regardless of gender. Both male and female full-time workers who were upset or bothered at work reported poorer sleep, as did those with less control and more demands at work. There are countless reasons working women aren’t getting enough sleep, and they’re probably feeling the consequences.

But there’s some reason for hope. In a new study, my co-authors and I asked whether living in a country that supports gender equality allows partnered men and women to sleep better. In a sample of 14,143 partnered individuals across 23 European countries, we found young children are still more disruptive to women’s sleep and family finances to men’s sleep and that women report more disrupted sleep than men in 22 of the 23 sampled countries. But overall, both men and women reported more restful sleep in countries where women hold more economic and political power. This means that women and men are sleeping better in Norway, where gender equality is the highest, than they are in Ukraine, where women have the least economic and political power of all the sampled countries.

Men experience countless benefits from gender equality, reporting better physical health, greater happiness, and—as our study shows—better sleep. Women in more gender-equal countries also report better health as well as more equal divisions of child care and housework with their partners. Doing unpaid domestic work often comes at the expense of free time and self-care, so this more equitable division of labor is critical to women’s sleep.

For those of us who can’t just move to Norway, what’s to be done? First, we need to start thinking about sleep as a site of negotiation. Sleep, like housework and child care, is another way women’s time is stretched, interrupted, and undervalued. Women have to advocate for their own right to sleep and other forms of self-care. And second, we have to acknowledge gender inequality is bad for men too. Like child care, the financial pressures of work are detrimental to sleep. In countries with high gender equality, men aren’t carrying that burden alone. This means, when it comes to sleep, dismantling traditional gender norms is something men would benefit from nearly as much as women.

But ultimately, we have to look at more than just individual men and women to change the way we sleep and work in the U.S. Our study shows it’s a country’s overall political and economic order that influences what happens when the alarm is set and the lights go out. When it comes to overall gender equality, we have our work cut out for us—if only we weren’t trying to do it on a bad night’s sleep.