Despite facing some inequality, women worldwide rate their well-being nearly the same as men

Published: Sunday, Oct. 28 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Gallup pollsters have found that South Korean women are happier than men. (Gina Smith, Shutterstock) Gallup pollsters have found that South Korean women are happier than men. (Gina Smith, Shutterstock)

Gallup is best known for keeping tabs on American presidential elections, but since 2005 it has been quietly accumulating data on how women around the world evaluate their lives. Are they hopeful and happy? Are they struggling and stressed? Are there differences in how men and women evaluate their lives?

To answer these questions, Gallup had men and women rate their lives on questions ranging from how much physical pain they experience to how hopeful they were about the future and what their financial prospects are.

Respondents were then classified as thriving, struggling or suffering based on their scores. A zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best. Respondents who rated their lives as a seven or better were classified as thriving. Respondents who rated their lives four or lower were said to be suffering. Those who fall between, according to Gallup's metric, were said to be struggling.

In a somewhat unexpected outcome, Gallup pollsters found that despite the fact that women face inequality in the areas of employment, personal safety and physical well-being, they rate their lives similarly to men. Across 147 countries, 24 percent of men and women rated their lives well enough to be considered "thriving." Women and men were also as likely to be "struggling" (63 percent) and "suffering" (13 percent).

Of course not all countries fit into this model, and the results in some cases are surprising.

Where women are happier

Women were more likely to say they were thriving in Qatar, Angola, South Korea and Iran. In attempting to explain these findings, Lymari Morales, managing editor at Gallup, said that there are no simple answers. One thing Gallup does know, however, is that "thriving appears to be highly correlated with employment and GDP," Morales said.

Gallup found that 55 percent of South Korean women considered their lives to be thriving compared to just 44 percent of men. Morales believes these responses reflect Korean women's high rates of participation in the paid labor force as well as their levels of educational attainment.

But life for women in Korea is far from perfect. For example, Korean women earn 38 percent less than men, the largest gender pay gap in the world. Morales suggests Korean women's responses to Gallup's surveys provide insights about how women evaluate their lives. "When they answer these questions, they aren't comparing themselves to men," she said, "they are just comparing themselves in general."

Another possibility is that women exhibit resilience and optimism despite the challenges they face. "Women in some countries may say their lives are a 10 because they have children, or a husband who helps with the family, or a roof over their head," Morales said, " and that doesn't always break down well when we look at it through a Western lens."

Media may also provide insight to women's responses in some of the countries. Morales said that recently in Egypt, GDP has been going up but thriving has been going down. Typically when GDP goes up, thriving goes up.

Explaining these results, Morales suggested that, "As access to media increased, Egyptians started comparing themselves to people in other countries. It could be that they are looking at all the progress in other countries, and it changes their expectations about how they should live," she said.

The insight about media may explain women's responses in Iran. While women there have high levels of educational attainment, they also have limited access to media because the government there heavily sensors newspapers, Internet and television.

Where men are happier

Gallup found that men are happier by statistically significant numbers in just two countries, Ukraine and Vietnam. Again there are no clear ways for explaining this finding. It is possible that responses in the Ukraine are related to differences in men and women's physical health, according to Morales. Only 44 percent of Ukrainian women say they are thriving when asked about their physical health. Conversely, 63 percent of Ukrainian men are thriving in terms of their physical health.

Women's access to well-paying jobs may also be an issue, according to data supplied by the United Nations Development Program. Ukrainian women between the ages of 15 and 70 have a labor market participation rate of just 58 percent. Those who do have jobs only earn 69 cents for every dollar a man earns. These trends persist despite the fact that Ukrainian women have higher levels of education than Ukrainian men.

In Vietnam, women have high (73 percent) participation in the labor force and high degrees of literacy. While women in these countries are not legally discriminated against, there is widespread societal discrimination, according to the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics. Prostitution and domestic violence are widely tolerated, and women fear the social stigma of divorce.

Women in Vietnam and the Ukraine certainly aren't the only women facing these issues, so it is surprising that these are the only countries where a large discrepancy between men and women's happiness exists. Morales says Gallup is still trying to understand why the results came out the way they did.

Best and worst places

Gallup found that men and women are most likely to be thriving in Denmark (70/78 percent) and Canada (62/70 percent). In the United States, 57 percent of men and 55 percent of women say they are thriving. Men and women in Afghanistan, Nepal and Madagascar are the least likely to be thriving.

In Afghanistan, 2 percent of women and 5 percent of men say they are thriving. In 2010, Gallup measured well-being among women in Afghanistan to be 15 percent. It says that these declines coincide with higher food prices and food shortages triggered by floods in Pakistan, the country's chief food exporter.

Email: mwhite@desnews.com

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