This Connection Between Sleep & Gender Inequality Makes SO Much Sense


The traditional (and severely outdated) division of nighttime labour in heterosexual couples goes something like this: women get up to feed the baby, or soothe the baby, or desperately plead with the baby to please stop crying. Men get home late from the office, jam in their earplugs, and arise five hours later for another busy day of shouting about stocks across a boardroom. Not the fairest set-up — and not the most conducive to a restful night's sleep, either. Unsurprisingly, a new study has revealed a connection between sleep and gender inequality; namely, that people sleep better in societies with higher gender equality (unless you have a cat, in which case it is written that the whole family must wake at 5 a.m. because the cat is screaming at the sunrise).

The Guardian reports that "both men and women sleep better in more equal societies," according to a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. (A study that, it should be noted, focuses primarily on heterosexual couples.) And that's precisely because those strict gender roles are lessened: women "get to offload some of the burden of rising at 2.45 a.m. to settle a screaming baby, or waiting up until midnight for a teenager to get home," the Guardian says.

Though men have historically been excused the responsibility of overnight childcare (or childcare full stop), they're not guaranteed quality sleep by rigid gender roles, either; as the newspaper explains, in unequal societies "men sleep fitfully, too, because they’re worrying about job security and household finances. Plus, they may well be staying up late, or getting up early, in order to work."

"Sleep is situated in the work–family nexus and can be shaped by national norms promoting gender equality," posit the authors of the study, researchers from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Melbourne. They conclude that "in nations that empower women and elevate their status, men and women alike report sounder sleep, and the gender gap in restless sleep is significantly reduced among those living in gender‐equal countries." Damn. It almost sounds like feminism could be a universally beneficial idea?

This isn't the first report to address the impact of gender and societal roles on sleep. A 2017 study by the American Academy of Neurology revealed that for women with children, "each child increas[es] the odds of insufficient sleep by nearly 50 percent" — but "having children in the house was not linked to how long men slept." Cool! Seems fair!

And even nightmares are influenced by gender roles. In 2014, a study published in the journal Sleep, as reported by the Guardian, found, "Themes of interpersonal conflict were twice as frequent in women's nightmares as men's, while men were much more likely to report nightmares involving disaster or calamity, such as floods, earthquakes or wars." Such is the power of toxic masculinity: even in sleep, apparently, men must remain preoccupied by the image of the action hero.

The Guardian describes the benefits of eschewing gender roles to evenly distribute household responsibilities thus: "If it’s your job, and your job alone, to see the kids through the night, or keep the money coming in, you naturally feel as if you can’t put a foot wrong; share the burden even slightly, and you’re no longer in such an all-or-nothing situation." Taking turns with the more exhausting aspects of childcare — particularly, the overnight shifts — ensures that "the whole family can keep going longer, avoiding burnout." And similarly, eradicating the concept of the breadwinner and dividing employment responsibilities means that "more hours can be worked, and more money earned, without any single member stretching the limits of their capacity for work — and without a single job loss eliminating a household’s entire income."

So, in summation: science has once again indicated that we should all listen to feminists, because forcing people into strict, outmoded gender roles has demonstrably negative consequences. Take turns getting up to feed the baby, friends! You're going to need all the sleep you can get before the cat starts screaming.