When a country makes progress in women’s rights, both women and men are likely to live longer, a new global study shows.
Researchers found that across 156 countries, people living in places with greater gender equality — in areas like education and work opportunities — typically had a longer life expectancy. And that was true of both women and men.
For every 10% increase in a standard measure of a country’s gender equality, women gained an average of 4 months in life expectancy, while men were right behind, at 3.5 months.
Experts said the findings illustrate how empowering women can have universal benefits. They also counter the notion that when women make gains, men lose.
“Excluding women from society is detrimental to everyone, and it’s a pity many politicians fail to understand that in the 21st century,” said lead researcher Dr. Cat Pinho-Gomes, of the George Institute for Global Health at Imperial College London.
There are many reasons that gains in women’s rights can, over time, translate to better well-being for all, according to Pinho-Gomes.
“We hypothesize that, initially, gender equality tends to be achieved in education,” she said.
That, in turn, creates a range of changes — from better jobs for women to lower birth rates — that improve women’s life expectancy to start. Later, Pinho-Gomes said, if the playing field starts to level in politics and leadership positions, even broader change becomes possible.
“Inclusion and involvement of women in the workforce, economy and politics leads to better policies for everyone,” Pinho-Gomes said.
She noted that men, in general, tend to die earlier from injuries and preventable diseases, compared with women. So when a society becomes healthier and wealthier overall, men’s health may benefit as much as women’s, if not more, Pinho-Gomes added.
Sheila Davis is chief executive officer of Partners in Health, a Boston-based nonprofit that works with governments around the world to provide better healthcare.
She said that when women have access to fundamentals, like healthcare and education, “there’s a ripple effect across communities.”
“We see it all the time,” said Davis, who was not involved in the new study.
She noted that women are the caregivers of the family — of children and elderly relatives — and when they are healthier, so is everyone else.
The findings, published online Monday in the journal PLOS Global Public Health, are based on an analysis of how countries were performing on the gender-equality front between 2010 and 2021. The researchers used a standard measure that gauges equality in education, economic opportunities and political leadership.
In 2021, the study found, each 10% increase in a country’s overall gender equality was linked to longer life expectancy among women and men — tacking on several months for both.
But equality in education stood out, especially in lower- to middle-income countries. In those regions, greater educational opportunities for women spurred a significant gain in life expectancy for all — though particularly for women.
That is likely because education is a “prerequisite” for women’s overall empowerment, according to Pinho-Gomes.
“Without education, women cannot be involved in other spheres of life and be independent,” she said. “Education is also essential for women to look after their health and that of their children, including girls and boys.”
Davis agreed. “We know that education has a huge impact,” she said. And that includes access to higher education that allows women to move into professional occupations.
Davis noted that at the healthcare facilities her organization supports worldwide, women account for nearly two-thirds of all community health workers.
In higher-income countries, the study found, education equality actually seemed to benefit men’s life expectancy more. It was linked to a narrowing in the traditional gender gap in life expectancy, because men made more gains.
Pinho-Gomes explained it this way: Improvements in gender equality, which usually start in education, initially benefit women more, as their basic health and living standards improve.
But once a society achieves a certain level of gender equality — not only in education, but economically and politically — there are systemic changes that may actually benefit men’s health and life expectancy even more.
Oftentimes, Davis noted, women’s empowerment is cast as being about women only, to the detriment of men.
But as these findings show, she said, supporting women “will benefit all of us.”
The World Health Organization has more on women’s health.
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