The Surprising Way Gender Equality Can Affect Women’s Health

Ashley Batz / Bustle

The path to equal rights for men and women doesn't run smooth — and in the realm of health, it may make things worse. We know that gender inequality leads to poor health outcomes, but rising gender equality also seems to have interesting repercussions for health. A study of over 12,000 people in Sweden between 1990 and 2014, which asked them to report how they felt about their health levels in comparison to other people their same age, was published in early December in the journal PLOS One, and it's found that women's self-reported health levels have actually gone down over that period, while men's have gone up. What this study shows is that the link between gender equality and health may not be so — and people are wondering why.

We already know that there's a strong relationship between gender inequality and health, but generally it's seen as a one-way deal: the more unequal a society, the more unwell both women and men are, and raises in markers of equality are meant to increase women's general health in particular. The World Health Organization identifies a huge range of factors about gender inequality that can leave the health of women worse off, from lower income to worse political participation to worse access to health services to exposure to different health risks. Men, according to research in 2013, also suffer in severely gender-unequal societies. But the Swedish study reveals that we need to look at the link between gender-unequal societies and the health of women in more complex ways, and that getting some rights while leaving others behind can place a giant and unseen strain on women's wellbeing.

As Some Women's Rights Improve, Our Sense Of Our Health Gets Worse

Here are the details on what the Swedish researchers actually found. Scientists from Umea University performed studies in 1990, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014, all asking men and women the same questions: “How would you rate your health compared to others the same age: better, the same or worse?” They were also asked questions about their physical activity levels, mood, BMI, and economic situation.

The people they looked at with the most interest were Swedes who were between 25 and 34 between 1990 and 2014, a study group that numbered nearly 2000 people. In that period, the amount of women who said they rated their health as worse than their peers shifted from 8.5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2014, while the amount of men who said they felt healthier rose from 8.5 percent to 18.3 percent. Women who felt better than their peers rose from 4.5 percent in 1990 to a peak of 18.4 percent in 2009, but fell back to 6.4 percent in 2014.

Both the men and the women in the study group became more likely, over the 24-year time period, to experience feelings of nervousness and anxiety, and worry about money. But it was women who experienced the biggest comparative dip in their feelings about their health. And the scientists think the answer may lie partially in the way Sweden's gender roles have developed.

Why Small Gains In Equality Don't Make The World A Paradise For Women

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What's been happening in Sweden since 1990 for women's equality? Well, in some senses things have moved forward, but in others they've stagnated or not changed at all. An Equal Opportunities Act appeared in 1992, and in 2002 parental leave laws were increased to 480 days and allocated equally to each parent. Women's salaries have risen, but are still at only 87 percent of men's salaries, and women still claim three quarters of the parental workplace leave available, with men only claiming a quarter. 79 percent of women aged 20-64 were in the labor force in 2001 compared to 71.8 percent in 2013, and women will only receive 67 percent of the money that men's pension funds receive. Sweden is still considered one of Europe's most gender-equal countries, but it can hardly sit on its laurels.

And the scientists behind the study believe that this uneven distribution of gender empowerment may be partially to blame for the greater proportion of Swedish women feeling worse than their peers. They explain that not only does gender inequality create issues, conflicts between old and new ideas can make women stressed:

"Women’s experience of gender inequality both at work and at home create tiredness, tension and worry, as well as feelings of personal failure [...] in upholding gender equality two norm systems conflict, the discourse of gender equality and the traditional family norm system. The tension between these two systems puts a heavy burden on women trying to encompass both norm systems simultaneously."

Women in Sweden are still earning less than men, and still spend twice as much time as men performing household chores, in addition to invisible emotional labor, the Umea scientists add. As more possibilities are made available for Swedish women without gender-equal rewards, and more pressure is raised about how women are expected to behave, women's experience of their own health is suffering. Meanwhile, the scientists say, men feel healthier because they're not losing out when it comes to giving women more equality; they still get the lion's share of salaries, and can feel a bit less imprisoned by toxic masculinity. It's a cocktail that tastes good to men and bitter to women. (The Swedish data didn't include race as a factor, so we don't know how this situation plays out with women of color, who tend to earn less than white women and face more discrimination globally.)

This is one hell of a rebuke to anybody who thinks that "women have it all" and that anybody who's still a feminist these days is fighting a battle that was essentially over when women got the vote. Gender equality is a process with a lot of angles, and this is proof that giving small gains to women and expecting them to be satisfied doesn't actually work. A partial resolution to women's inequality in society makes our lives easier in some ways and harder in others — which is why it's important to keep pushing and fighting.