According to a new global study, which the authors believe is the first of its kind, both women and men are likely to live longer as a country makes strides towards gender equality.
The study was published in the journal PLOS Global Public Health this week, just before International Women’s Day. It adds to a growing body of research showing that advances in women’s rights benefit all.
“On this International Women’s Day, let’s not forget that the evidence shows that increasing women’s representation in multiple sectors contributes to more prosperous, and therefore healthier, societies for all,” said lead author Cat Pinho-Gomes, Research Associate at the George Institute for Global Health and Imperial College London, according to a press release.
The researchers estimated gender equality in 156 countries using a “modified global gender gap index” based on an index developed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) between 2010 and 2021. They believe this is the first study to examine the link between this index and the gender gap in life expectancy.
“Around the world, greater gender equality is associated with longer [life expectancy] for both women and men and a widening of the gender gap in [life expectancy]”, Close.
Overall, in 2021, every 10% increase in the modified Gender Gap Index was associated with a 4.3 month increase in life expectancy for women and a 3.5 month increase for men, resulting in an eight month larger gender gap led.
There were significant differences between geographic regions, with the gap between high-income countries being much narrower.
That suggests that gender equality might initially widen the gender gap in life expectancy, researchers say, “since the benefits of greater gender equality accrue mainly to women’s lives and health.” But the ripple effect would eventually benefit men’s longevity as well.
“As countries move forward on the gender equality continuum, the benefits of women’s greater participation in society extend to men, leading to a larger increase in men [life expectancy] and a narrowing of the gender gap in [life expectancy],” you write.
Equality in education has the strongest link to longevity
“Many of the factors that determine how long you will live – such as working and living conditions, exposure to pollution, access to health care, education, income and social support – are linked to gender disparities around the world,” explains Pinho-Gomes .
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index focuses on four dimensions: health, economic opportunity, education and political leadership.
Researchers examined the political, economic and educational aspects of gender equality and found that the latter had the strongest association with increased life expectancy.
According to Pinho-Gomes, this underscores the importance of investing in education, especially in low- and middle-income countries where resources and opportunities for girls remain limited.
The study finds that while more than two-thirds of countries achieved gender parity in primary education in 2020, significant disparities remain in parts of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Girls’ access to education has long-term implications for their well-being and that of their communities, including in areas such as family planning and poverty reduction. And according to Pinho-Gomes, it’s not just important in developing countries.
“Even in high-income countries — where significant progress has been made in tackling gender inequalities in recent years — investing in gender equality can still improve life expectancy, especially for men,” she says.
Progress is also needed in politics and in the workforce
The study also highlights some of the economic challenges women face, namely the gender pay gap and their lower participation rate.
It states that “to unlock the full potential of half the world’s population”, social norms must be changed and “gender-sensitive policies” such as adequate parental leave and flexible working hours must be implemented.
These political reforms are easier said than done, the study admits. Even when women are represented in large numbers in political institutions, they often face glass ceilings and other challenges that limit their power to effect change.
Pinho-Gomes says that the weaker link between gender equality in politics and the gender gap in life expectancy “raises concerns about how gender equality is being implemented by political systems around the world.”
United Nations data shows that women are underrepresented worldwide at all levels of decision-making, from the executive branch to positions in local government. At the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will take 130 years, they say.
Only 31 countries have women leaders as of January 2023 – and that was before prominent female leaders such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon announced their resignations.
“As we have seen from the recent resignations of high-profile women politicians, women still face major challenges in this area, including discrimination, balancing personal, family and political life, supporting political parties and securing campaign finance,” said Pinho – says Gomes.
Findings can help set policy priorities at a crucial time
While the authors say their study is strong – particularly because of the reliability of the WEF data and the large number of countries included – they also acknowledge some limitations.
For one, data were not available for all countries in the world, so the associations observed in some regions might look different if all their neighbors were included. The index they use is not exhaustive, so including additional indicators of gender inequality could potentially lead to different results.
They also say it’s possible that the associations they observed between gender equality and life expectancy could be explained by other factors, such as socioeconomic development and sociocultural norms.
However, they believe their findings could help policymakers around the world set priorities in public health and other areas.
And the issue has taken on a new urgency: The WEF estimates that the time it takes to close the global gender gap has increased by an entire generation – from 99.5 years to 135.6 years – as a result of the The COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to the researchers, had “a gendered impact on multiple areas of life.”
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