Over the past several decades, countries around the world have made significant progress in advancing women’s social, economic, and political rights. The United Nations has even made gender equality one of its Sustainable Development Goals for the next decade, recognising that women’s rights are important not merely for equality’s sake, but that they are also fundamental for achieving other goals like eliminating poverty, promoting health, and generating economic growth. Our research shows that gender equality has another important benefit: improving the life satisfaction of residents – both men and women – in equal societies.

This research is part of a long tradition of examining government’s effect on life satisfaction and well-being; political thinkers dating back to Aristotle have claimed that happiness is the primary purpose for government. Politics has a substantial effect on how people live their daily lives: the rights and freedoms that one has, one’s ability to get an education and find economic success, and the ability to contribute to the community around oneself all impact life outcomes. In theory, living in a society where one has greater political choice, more control over one’s life, and generally more freedom should lead to a greater quality of life.

But can policies promoting gender equality really change how happy one is with their life? Previous studies have largely been mixed or tentative. Moreover, some critics of gender equality have even claimed that the empowerment of women actually has negative effects on society, like overturning the “protection” offered to women by traditional gender roles and adding additional burdens (like work outside the home) that outweigh the benefits of emancipation.

To test these competing claims, we turn to four of the most well-regarded measures of a country’s gender equality: the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), the Gender Development Index (GDI), the Gender Inequality Index (GII), and the Gender Gap Index (GGI). These measures each capture different elements of gender equality in a country, including women’s representation in government, how long women have held the right to vote, equality with men in education, pay, and health, and whether women are equally likely as men to have jobs as managers or other senior-level positions, among other indicators of equality. Using all four measures allows us to capture a more comprehensive assessment of the level of gender equality in a society.

We combine these data with mean levels of life satisfaction from the World Values Survey, a massive and rigorous survey conducted in countries around the world, and data for other variables often shown to influence levels of life satisfaction, including individualism of culture, GDP, unemployment, and economic growth. In a second test we also use data from the Eurobarometer survey to give us a longer time period of analysis – 17 years of data. To ensure that the countries we analyse are relatively comparable, we follow previous studies and restrict our statistical models to the industrial democracies of the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

What we find is a clear and convincing result: residents of countries with greater gender equality are, on average, more satisfied with their lives than are residents of societies with less gender equality. As an example of this trend, see the figure below.

Figure 1. Life satisfaction by level of gender equality
Note: For more information, see the author’s (co-authored) article in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

This figure uses the GEM data previously referenced, with a number closer to the right on the horizontal axis indicating that there is greater gender equality in that country and a number closer to the left indicating that there is less gender equality. The vertical axis shows how satisfied residents of the country are, on average, on a scale of 1-10. The increasing line is an average of all of the countries in our research. It shows that countries that are more unequal with respect to gender, like Japan, tend to have less happy residents, while countries with greater gender equality (like Denmark) tend to have residents that are more satisfied with their lives.

This trend looks very similar across our four measures of equality and over each of the time periods that we examined. Furthermore, the statistics suggest that the effect is substantial: gender equality has a large and positive impact on one’s life satisfaction. Thus, our research offers evidence in support of the societal benefits that can be gained by supporting equal rights for men and women.

From the perspective of women gaining empowerment in a society, these results may seem intuitive. But does this increase in life satisfaction for women come at the expense of men’s satisfaction? That is, does advancing the rights of women mean reducing the rights of men, as some have suggested? In short, our results suggest that the answer is no. Breaking out life satisfaction by gender groups, we find that gender equality raises life satisfaction not just for women, but for men too, albeit more modestly. Providing opportunities for women in the government and the workplace does not mean fewer opportunities for men to succeed and find happiness. To use the common aphorism, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” We all benefit from working towards equality and justice.

From Aristotle to the present day, political commentators from across the ideological spectrum have extolled the virtue of government promoting the happiness and well-being of a country’s residents. Our research offers evidence that prioritising gender equality is one important way of doing so. Following the data from our research, this might include working towards greater representation of women in the government, in top positions in the private sector, and advocating equal pay for equal work among women and men. While there is still more research to be done (for example, focusing on less “developed” countries, on gender minorities, or on levels of happiness among other underrepresented groups), this research indicates that gender equality benefits society as a whole and presents practical steps towards building a better, more satisfying life for all.

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Andre P. Audette is an assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College. He researches political behaviour, identity politics, and political inequality, as well as the impact of politics on life satisfaction.