Gender roles and selection mechanisms across contexts: A comparative analysis of the relationship between unemployment, self-perceived health, and gender

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This paper looks at gender differences in the way unemployment impacts on health. It finds on average women suffer less from unemployment than men, and this effect is more pronounced in countries with traditional gender roles than in more egalitarian societies.

The researchers wanted to know if the negative effect of unemployment is stronger among men than women because work-related roles are more central in life for the former (work is a source of individual identity and self-realization) than for the latter (for whom family-related roles are instead more central). The authors hypothesised to find this pattern in traditional contexts and much less so in egalitarian ones.

They tested this hypothesis comparing three pairs of contexts characterized by different levels of egalitarianism/traditionalism. The first comparison included data relating to the health of people in Italy and Sweden between 2004 and 2015; the second looked at East and West Germany between 1992 and 2016 and the third compared younger and older cohorts in Germany over the same period. The datasets used included almost 60,000 working-age adults in Italy, nearly 9,000 in Sweden, just under 30,000 in West Germany and 7,700 in East Germany.  The comparison between young and old in West Germany had 7,800 older people born before 1960 and 21,000 younger people born after that date.

The study found that in both Sweden and Italy women suffered less than men from unemployment in terms of self-reported health problems – but the gap was wider in the more traditional setting of Italy. Similar results were obtained when comparing East Germany with the more traditional West Germany.

In West Germany, a similar pattern emerged between younger (egalitarian) and older (traditional) cohorts with older workers suffering a greater effect than younger. Unemployment increased the risk of bad health by 8.4 percentage points for men and 5.2 percentage points for women in the older group, but by 5.8 and 3.6 percentage points for men and women, respectively, in the younger group.

The researchers concluded that a more equal distribution of social roles could help both men and women to reduce the negative health consequences of unemployment. Social and labour policies targeting men and fathers should facilitate their greater involvement in family life, while those aimed at women should focus on greater integration into the labour market.