The Happiest Kids on Earth. Gender Equality and Adolescent Life Satisfaction in Europe and North America
The Happiest Kids on Earth. Gender Equality and Adolescent Life Satisfaction in Europe and North America
M. E. de Looze 0 1 2
● T. Huijts 0 1 2
● G. W. J. M. Stevens 0 1 2
● T. Torsheim 0 1 2
● W. A. M. Vollebergh 0 1 2
0 Department of Psychosocial Science, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen , Postboks 7807, 5020 Bergen , Norway
1 Department of Sociology, University of York, Wentworth College , W/247, Heslington YO10 5DD , UK
2 Department of Interdisciplinary Social Science, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Utrecht University , P.O. Box 80.140, 3508 TC Utrecht , The Netherlands
3 M. E. de Looze
Cross-national differences in adolescent life satisfaction in Europe and North America are consistent, but remain poorly understood. While previous studies have predominantly focused on the explanatory role of economic factors, such as national wealth and income equality, they revealed weak associations, at most. This study examines whether societal gender equality can explain the observed cross-national variability in adolescent life satisfaction. Based on the assumption that gender equality fosters a supportive social context, for example within families through a more equal involvement of fathers and mothers in child care tasks, adolescent life satisfaction was expected to be higher in more gender-equal countries. To test this hypothesis, national-level data of gender equality (i.e., women's share in political participation, decision making power, economic participation and command over resources) were linked to data from 175,470 adolescents aged 11-16 years old (Mage = 13.6, SD = 1.64, 52% girls) from 34 European and North American countries involved in the 2009/10 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study. Results of linear multilevel regression analyses indicate that adolescents in countries with relatively high levels of gender equality report higher life satisfaction than their peers in countries with lower levels of gender equality. The association between gender equality and adolescent life satisfaction remained significant after controlling for national wealth and income equality. It was equally strong for boys and girls. Moreover, the association between gender equality and life satisfaction was explained by social support in the family, peer and school context. This analysis suggests that gender equality fosters social support among members of a society, which in turn contributes to adolescent life satisfaction. Thus, promoting gender equality is likely to benefit all members of a society; not just by giving equal rights to women and girls, but also by fostering a supportive social climate for all.
Gender equality ● Adolescent life satisfaction ● Europe ● North America ● Social support ● Multilevel analysis
Consistent variation in adolescent subjective well-being
exists across European and North American countries. In
the past decades, the Netherlands and Scandinavian
countries have been topping the list, while Eastern European
countries tend to score lowest
(Bradshaw and Richardson
2009; Cavallo et al. 2015; Inchley et al. 2016)
. To illustrate,
data from the international Health Behavior in School-aged
Children (HBSC) study in 2002
(Currie et al. 2004)
(Currie et al. 2008a)
(Currie et al. 2012)
(Inchley et al. 2016)
show that more than 90% of 15-year
olds in the Netherlands report high life satisfaction, vs. less
than 75% of 15-year old adolescents in Poland. While
cross-national differences in sociodemographic factors
family structure; Bjarnason et al. 2012)
are likely to explain
some of the cross-national variation, research has
increasingly recognized the role of societal factors in explaining
the observed cross-national differences in adolescent
wellbeing. Most studies have focused on the explanatory role of
economic factors, such as national wealth and income
equality, but they revealed weak associations, at most
adolescents in countries with higher national wealth and
more income equality have a slightly higher life
satisfaction; Bjarnason et al. 2012; Holstein et al. 2009; Levin et al.
. Much less research has been done on the role of
social and cultural factors. Research on adults, however, has
clearly revealed the importance of gender equality for adult
(Holter 2014; Inglehart et al. 2002; Schyns
. It seems likely that gender equality impacts the life
satisfaction of the children of these adults as well.
Therefore, this study examines the importance of gender equality
for adolescent life satisfaction. Based on the assumption
that gender equality in society fosters more socially
supportive relationships, for example in the family context
through more equal involvement of fathers and mothers in
child rearing, we expect that adolescent life satisfaction is
higher in more gender-equal countries.
Gender Equality and Life Satisfaction among Adults
In research among adults, gender equality
(here defined as
the extent to which women and men have an equal share of
paid work, money, decision-making power and time in
society; Plantenga et al. 2009)
has been positively related to
(Holter 2014; Inglehart et al. 2002; Schyns
. In a large, cross-national study among European
countries, Holter (2014) revealed that “the chance of being
happy is about twice as high for both genders in the most
gender-equal countries, compared to the least gender equal.”
(p. 523). While most research on gender equality focuses on
benefits for women, such as increased professional
opportunities, men thus appear to benefit equally from high levels
of societal gender equality. Men and women in the most
gender-equal societies do not only have a higher well-being;
they also have half the chance of being depressed, and about
40 percent less risk of a violent death, compared to men and
women living in the least gender-equal societies
. In the United States, similar effects have been found
at the state-level
Reasons for why adult men and women fare so well by
high levels of societal gender equality may be sought in a
fundamental difference in the social climate in gender-equal
vs. gender-unequal societies. Inglehart and colleagues
(2002) specified that a society’s prevailing style of social
interaction between members of that society changes as
societal gender equality increases. In more gender-equal
societies, where women are more likely to have an authority
role, authority patterns tend to shift from the traditional
hierarchical style toward a more collegial style that parallels
the differences between stereotypically “male” and “female”
styles of social interaction or leadership
(Inglehart et al.
. That is, while men are more likely to emphasize
competition and domination, women tend to have a more
cooperative and supportive leadership style. These
interaction styles are not limited to the professional context; they
are also reflected in other, more private, aspects of social
life. Thus, the literature suggests that social climates
are more supportive in more gender-equal countries. These
supportive social climates may, in turn, positively impact
the well-being of adult women ánd men.
Empirical research appears to confirm that countries with
relatively high levels of gender equality indeed tend to have
more supportive social climates. That is, countries with high
levels of gender equality tend to have a cultural preference
for (what are traditionally considered) “female” values, such
as modesty, cooperation, and support
(Cheung and Chan
2007; Hofstede 1998; Schwartz and Rubel-Lifschitz 2009;
Ye et al. 2015)
. In contrast, countries with relatively low
levels of gender equality tend to attach more importance to
typically “male” values such as achievement, heroism, and
(Hofstede 1998, 2010)
. Cultures with a
preference for “female” values, or feminine cultures
, typically score higher on well-being,
compared to countries with a preference for “male” values, or
masculine cultures (Ye et al. 2015). All in all, societal
gender equality may affect the well-being of the inhabitants
of a country by fostering a more socially supportive climate
Gender Equality and Life Satisfaction among
While the link between gender equality and life satisfaction
for adults has been confirmed, much less is known about the
impact of gender equality on adolescent life satisfaction. A
study by Torsheim and colleagues (2006) touched upon this
issue and found that adolescent boys and girls in relatively
gender-equal countries reported lower levels of health
complaints, compared to boys and girls in relatively
genderunequal countries. The mechanisms explaining this
relationship, however, have remained poorly understood and
have been hardly addressed in the literature. Based on the
assumption that societal gender equality fosters a more
socially supportive environment, the hypothesis can be
formulated that societal gender equality affects adolescent
health and well-being through increased levels of social
support in the three most important social contexts of
adolescents’ life: the family, the peers, and the school
Within the family, high levels of societal gender equality
may translate into parents sharing the care of their children
and domestic work
(Ray et al. 2008)
. This may affect
children’s life satisfaction in three different ways. First,
fathers become more involved in child rearing, both in
practical and emotional ways
(Haas and Hwang 2008;
Miller and Sassler 2012; O’Brien 2009)
. Fathers who are
more involved in child rearing have better relationships with
(Cabrera and Tamis-LeMonda 2013; Sarkadi
et al. 2008; Wilson and Prior 2011)
, and this translates into
higher well-being of these children
(Wilson and Prior
. Second, the parental sharing of child care tasks and
domestic work has been linked to higher maternal
(Galtry and Callister 2005)
, presumably because
mothers feel supported in combining the child care tasks
with a professional career. It has also been related to higher
paternal well-being, potentially because caring for children
has a buffering effect on psychosocial symptoms for men
working long hours
(Krantz et al. 2005)
. Higher parental
well-being, in turn, translates into higher adolescent
wellbeing (Powdthavee and Vignoles 2008). Finally, the
parental sharing of child care tasks and domestic work has been
related to improved relationship satisfaction and higher
couple stability among mothers and fathers
. A positive family climate and stable family
structure, in turn, are among the strongest predictors of
adolescent life satisfaction
(Bjarnason et al. 2012; Diener
and Diener McGavran 2008; Levin and Currie 2010;
Proctor et al. 2009; Viner et al. 2012)
Gender equality may exert an influence outside of the
family as well. The social climate in schools and among
peers is likely to be more supportive and less competitive in
countries with higher levels of gender equality, compared to
countries with lower levels of gender equality. While
research on the association between societal gender equality
and school climate is scarce, research has pointed out that
educational systems in feminine cultures tend to value
social adaptation (rather than academic performance),
friendliness in teachers (rather than their brilliance), and
mutual solidarity (rather than competition)
(Hofstede et al.
. Negative social behaviors, such as bullying, are less
(Inchley et al. 2016)
and appear to be less accepted
(Ciby and Raya 2015; Hofstede et al. 2010)
with feminine cultures, compared to masculine cultures.
Importantly, the characteristics of the school climate on
which countries with feminine cultures score typically
higher (i.e., high teacher and classmate support), have been
consistently associated with better mental health outcomes
(García-Moya et al. 2015; Ottova et al.
. In contrast, the focus on achievement and
competition in masculine cultures may increase school-related stress
in some adolescents. This, in turn, may translate into a
(Ottova et al. 2012)
In sum, adolescents in more gender-equal countries may
benefit from a more supportive social climate in the family,
peer, and school context, compared to adolescents in less
gender-equal countries. With social support being one of the
strongest predictors of life satisfaction of youth
and Diener McGavran 2008; Proctor et al. 2009; Viner et al.
, it can be hypothesized that social support in the
family, peer, and school context explains the positive
association between societal gender equality and adolescent
Does Gender Equality Impact Boys ánd Girls?
One of the most well-established findings in well-being
research is that girls tend to report lower well-being than
(Cavallo et al. 2006; Inchley et al. 2016; Torsheim
et al. 2006)
. Yet, studies addressing links between gender
equality and life satisfaction among adults
suggest that men as well as women benefit from high levels
of societal gender equality. Moreover, an abundance of
literature shows that males as well as females benefit from a
more socially supportive climate
(e.g., Chu et al. 2010;
Diener and Diener McGavran 2008; Viner et al. 2012)
Therefore, it can be expected that adolescent boys and girls
benefit equally from societal gender equality.
Despite a large body of literature documenting consistent
cross-national differences in adolescent life satisfaction in
Europe and North America, these cross-national differences
remain poorly understood. In contrast to previous studies
that predominantly focused on the explanatory role of
economic factors, this study takes a more social approach.
Based on the assumption that high levels of societal gender
equality foster a more socially supportive climate for all, the
current study examines whether adolescents living in more
gender-equal countries have a higher life satisfaction,
compared to their peers in less gender-equal countries.
Using a large, cross-national dataset including 34 European
and North American countries, we addressed the following
research questions: (1) Is societal gender equality associated
with adolescent life satisfaction?; (2) Is this association
explained by social support in the family, peer and school
context?; and (3) Is this association equally strong for boys
and girls? We predict that gender equality can (partly)
explain cross-national differences in adolescent life
satisfaction in Europe and North America, over and above
economic factors. Specifically, we hypothesize that this
association can be explained by social support from parents,
peers, and classmates. Finally, in line with empirical
findings on adult samples in Europe and North America
and based on evidence showing that males as
well as females benefit from a more socially supportive
(e.g., Chu et al. 2010; Diener and Diener McGavran
2008; Viner et al. 2012)
, we expect that the life satisfaction
of adolescent boys ánd girls is higher in countries with
higher levels of societal gender equality.
Study Population and Procedures
We used survey data collected in the 2009/10 cycle of the
Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study
(Currie et al. 2012)
. Anonymous surveys were conducted in
the classrooms of 11-, 13- and 15-year olds according to a
common research protocol. A clustered sampling design
was used, where the initial sampling unit was the school.
Samples were representative geographically, with variations
in sampling criteria permitted to fit country-level
circumstances. Some countries oversampled subpopulations (e.g.,
by geography, ethnicity), and therefore survey weights were
In total, 34 countries were included in the analysis (N =
175,470; for an overview of the countries please see Table
1). The total sample consisted of 52% girls, Mage = 13.6
years old (SD = 1.64). Each participating country obtained
approval to conduct the survey from the ethics review board
or equivalent regulatory body associated with their
respective institutions/countries. Participation was voluntary and
informed consent was sought from school administrators,
parents and children according to local human subject
requirements. School response rates varied by country but
were >70% in most countries. At the student-participant
level, response rates ranged from 44 to 92%, but they were
>70% in almost all countries. For more information on
study procedures, see Roberts and colleagues (2009).
Dependent Variable (Individual Level)
Life satisfaction was measured by
asking students to rate how they presently feel about their
life on a ladder ranging from 0, representing the worst
possible life, to 10, representing the best possible life.
Minor wording change was conducted on the original item
to facilitate its use in 11 year olds in the HBSC study. This
reworded scale has a good reliability and convergent
validity among adolescents in the ages between 11 and
15 years old
(Levin and Currie 2014)
. Although measures
such as the (adapted) Cantril ladder may be susceptible to
contextual factors (e.g., language effects, cultural
measurement bias), these factors cannot explain the observed
cross-cultural differences in life satisfaction
. The Cantril ladder can thus be used as a valid
and reliable measure of life satisfaction across nations
Background Characteristics (Individual Level)
The participants indicated their gender by responding to the
item “Are you a boy or a girl?” Responses were 0 (boy) and
Age was derived from an item recording a participant’s
month and year of birth and relating that to the date of
The HBSC Family Affluence Scale
(FAS; Currie et al.
was used as a proxy for socioeconomic status. The
HBSC 2009/10 survey used a four-item assessment of
common material assets or activities of an adolescent’s
family (e.g., “Does your family own a car, van or truck?”
with response options: no, one, two or more / “How many
computers does your family own?” with response options:
none, one, two, more than two). Responses were scored and
summed. In this analysis, adolescents’ relative
socioeconomic position in society was calculated by comparing
the individual’s summary score from the FAS to all other
scores in the respective country. The ridit-based relative
affluence score was used to identify groups of young people
in the lowest 20% (low affluence), middle 60% (medium
affluence) and highest 20% (high affluence) in each country.
By equalizing the distribution of low, medium and high
relative family affluence, we effectively disregard country
differences in absolute poverty and material standards of
(Inchley et al. 2016)
. In the current sample, the
average score across countries on the FAS variable before
transformation into a relative measure was 9.85 (SD =
1.98). Norway had the highest average score on FAS
(11.24) while the lowest average FAS score was found in
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Family structure was assessed by one question, asking
respondents to indicate who resides in the home they live all
or most of the time. Answers were recoded as follows: 1 =
living with both biological parents; 2 = living with
biological mother only; 3 = living with biological father only;
and 4 = living with neither biological parent. Research
indicates that adolescents living with both biological parents
have higher life satisfaction compared to adolescents living
in other family structures
(Bjarnason et al. 2012)
Social Support (Individual Level)
Ease of communication with parents and best friend
Participants responded to three single-item measures asking
about how easy it is to talk with their mother/father/best
friend about things that really bother them (answering
categories ranging from 1 = very easy to 4 = very difficult
and 5 = I don’t have or see a mother/father/best friend). The
items were recoded into dummy variables, with very easy
communication being the reference category. Easy and open
communication with parents and friends has been identified
as a protective factor against poor health outcomes
et al. 2009)
and is associated with higher life satisfaction
among adolescents across countries
(Levin and Currie
2010; Levin et al. 2011b)
Participants were asked to answer the question “How do you
feel about school at present?” (Answering categories
ranging from 1 = I like it a lot, to 4 = I don’t like it at all). This
variable has been found to be a powerful correlate of health
behaviors and health perceptions across countries
et al. 1998)
. For the purpose of this study, it was reversely
coded with a higher score reflecting a more positive feeling
Classmate support was assessed by three items indicating
the extent to which classmates were experienced as
supportive, e.g., “Most of the students in my class are kind and
helpful” (Response categories going from 1 = completely
agree to 5 = completely disagree). Cronbach’s alpha was
0.71. This is a cross-nationally valid and reliable scale for
(Torsheim et al. 2010)
. The items were recoded
so that a higher score indicated greater classmate support.
National Characteristics (Macro-Level)
In this study, the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM)
was included as a measure of gender equality (UNDP 2009;
http://hdr.undp.org). The GEM assesses women’s share in
political participation, decision making power, economic
participation and command over resources. Thus, it
examines the extent to which women are able to actively
participate in economic and political life and take part in
decision-making. It is calculated by the United Nations
Development Programme, using a linear combination of
women’s and men’s percentage shares of parliamentary
seats, women’s and men’s percentage shares of positions as
legislators, senior officials and managers, and women’s and
men’s percentage shares of professional and technical
positions, and share of economic resources as measured by
women’s and men’s estimated earned income.
One criticism of the GEM is that it delivers higher gender
inequality outcomes for poor countries (regardless of their
actual gender equality situation) because it relies heavily on
women’s absolute income
(Hawken and Munck 2013)
However, this study focuses on European countries and
does not include extremely poor countries. Moreover, we
deliberately chose the GEM as it measures the proportion of
women in management and decision-making positions.
According to our hypothesis, this aspect of gender equality
is closely linked to a preference for female social interaction
styles and a more supportive social climate in societies, and
consequently to a higher adolescent life satisfaction. Other
indices that focus more on gender (in)equality in life
expectancy, education, or labor force participation, like the
Gender Development Index (UNDP), Gender Equity Index
(Social Watch) and Global Gender Gap Index (World
Economic Forum), were therefore considered less relevant.
National wealth and income inequality
Estimates of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita and
income inequality (Gini index) were available from the
World Bank (2010
). GNI per capita represents the sum of
gross value added by all resident producers in the economy
plus product taxes and minus any subsidies not included in
the value of the products, divided by the mid-year
population, and standardized to US dollars. The Gini index
represents the distribution of income among everyone in a
society, and ranges theoretically from 0 (where all persons
have equal income) to 1 (where one person has all the
income and the rest have none). National wealth and
income inequality are traditionally examined together in
social models of health
(e.g., Elgar et al. 2017)
We estimated linear multilevel regression models to test our
expectations. The mixed model function in SPSS 22.0 was
used for the model estimation. Multilevel regression models
take into account the hierarchical clustering of individuals
First, we modelled direct associations between life
satisfaction and the individual and national characteristics
included in this study. In Model A, we computed an empty
model without any predictors to estimate the total variance
in life satisfaction between individuals and between
countries. In Model B, we added information on
sociodemographics (age and gender) and family structure, to
see whether variation presented in Model A can be
explained by differences in sociodemographic factors and
family composition between individuals and countries. In
Model C, we included the GEM. In Model D, we added
GNI per capita and the Gini index to see whether the
association between the GEM and life satisfaction could be
attributed to wealth and income inequality. In Model E, we
included the ease of communication, liking school, and
classmate support (at the individual level) in order to
examine if these variables explained the association
between GEM and life satisfaction. If associations between
social support and adolescent life satisfaction are significant
and if the association between the GEM and adolescent life
satisfaction decreases or disappears, we can conclude that
social support (partly) explains the association between the
GEM and life satisfaction. Finally, in Model F we tested the
hypothesized interaction effect (GEM × gender) to assess
whether the association between gender equality and
adolescent life satisfaction varied by adolescent gender.
Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics of our sample.
Adolescents, on average, gave their life quite a high grade,
M = 7.58 (SD = 1.89). Across countries, most scores were
between 7.00 and 8.00, except in three countries (i.e.,
Armenia and Macedonia score above 8; Turkey scores
below 7). Across countries, 74% of the adolescents lived
with both biological parents, 20% only or mainly lived with
their mother, 3% only or mainly lived with their father, and
3% lived with neither parent. Large differences were
observed between countries. To illustrate, 94% of the
children in Armenia lived with both biological parents, vs.
59% of the children in the United States. The percentages of
adolescents reporting very easy communication with
mothers (45%) and best friends (50%) were higher than the
percentage of adolescents reporting very easy
communication with fathers (26%). Finally, adolescents reported to like
school relatively much (M = 1.95, SD = 0.88 on a scale
from 0 to 3) and they rated their classmates as relatively
nice (M = 2.92, SD = 0.77 on a scale from 0 to 4).
In terms of national characteristics, Scandinavian
countries scored highest on gender equality (Finland, Norway
and Sweden had a score > .90), whereas Turkey scored
lowest (.38). The GNI per capita of countries ranged from
5.450 (Armenia) to 63.950 (Luxembourg). Gini indices
ranged from .26 (Norway; low income inequality) to .44
(Macedonia, high income inequality).
Table 2 presents the results of the linear multilevel
regression analysis of life satisfaction on individual and
national characteristics. Model A (the empty model) shows
that significant national variance in life satisfaction exists,
but the variance is relatively small (0.091/(0.091 + 3.510)
= 0.025, meaning that 2.5% of total variance in life
satisfaction is located at the national level.
In Model B, individual-level socio-demographics (age
and gender) and family structure were added to the model.
In line with previous studies, life satisfaction is higher for
boys than for girls, for younger adolescents compared to
older adolescents, and for adolescents who live with both
biological parents, compared to adolescents who only live
with one parent or with neither parent. There is a decrease in
national variance in life satisfaction after including these
characteristics (from 0.091 to 0.083) which indicates that
the cross-national variation in life satisfaction can be partly
explained by differences in gender, age and family structure
In Model C, the societal GEM measure was added. The
GEM is positively and significantly associated with life
satisfaction, indicating that adolescent life satisfaction is
higher in countries with more gender equality. National
variance decreases after inclusion of gender equality (from
0.083 to 0.076), meaning that the variation in gender
equality explains part of the differences in life satisfaction
In Model D, national wealth and income equality were
added. Results show that these characteristics cannot
explain the association between equality and adolescent life
satisfaction. This association remains significant and even
increases in strength after controlling for national wealth
and income inequality, indicating a suppression effect of the
economic indicators. Moreover, GNI and the Gini index are
not independently associated with life satisfaction if the
GEM is taken into account.
Next, we tested whether supportive social relationships
in the family, peer, and school context explained the
association between societal gender equality and adolescent life
satisfaction (Model E). The estimates indicate that
adolescents who find it (very) difficult to talk with their father,
mother or best friend, or who do not have or see a father,
mother or best friend, report significantly lower life
Model A: empty
Model C: +gender
Model D: +GNI Model E: +social
per capita and Gini support
satisfaction than adolescents for whom it is very easy to talk
with their father, mother or best friend. Also, adolescent life
satisfaction is higher for adolescents who like school and
who perceive their classmates as supportive. The
association between gender equality and life satisfaction was no
longer significant after taking into account these variables.
This suggests that gender equality affects life satisfaction
through supportive social relationships in the family, peer,
and school context. Both individual- and national-level
variance in life satisfaction were reduced substantially (from
3.355 to 2.828 and from 0.073 to 0.063, respectively) by
taking social support into account, meaning that social
support at the individual level is a key factor in explaining
cross-national differences in adolescent life satisfaction.
Finally, in Model F, the cross-level interaction effect
(GEM × gender) was added to the model. The interaction
was not significant (B = −0.196, SE = 0.141), indicating
that the association between societal gender equality and
life satisfaction is equally strong for boys and girls.
We performed three sensitivity analyses (not reported in
the tables) to check the robustness of our results. First, as
the GEM is highly correlated with both GNI per capita
(Pearson’s r = .855, p < .01) and the Gini index (Pearson’s
r = .−0.319, p < .1), we conducted additional analyses in
which the GNI per capita and Gini index were added in
separate models to Model B. By doing this, we could see if
the GNI per capita and the Gini index were associated with
adolescent life satisfaction if the GEM was not taken into
account. The results of these analyses were also
nonsignificant (B = .004, SE = .003 for GNI per capita; B =
−.005, SE = .010 for the Gini index). This confirms that
GNI per capita and the Gini index are not associated with
adolescent life satisfaction, and suggests that the results
presented in Table 2 are not due to multicollinearity issues
among the macro-level variables.
Second, we re-estimated our models excluding Armenia
and Turkey from the sample. As can be derived from Table
1, these countries could act as outliers due to their relatively
high (Armenia) and low (Turkey) average life satisfaction
scores. After excluding Armenia and Turkey, the
association between the GEM and adolescent life satisfaction
became even stronger (Model D; B = .916, SE = .394, p
= .027). In our main analyses we have decided not to
exclude Armenia and Turkey in order to present
conservative estimates of the relationship between gender
equality and life satisfaction.
Third, we estimated models in which the five social
support variables were used as dependent variables to
examine which dimension of social support is most likely to
explain the relationship between the GEM and adolescent
life satisfaction. We found that the GEM is most strongly
related to classmate support, with a higher GEM being
associated with higher levels of classmate support. This
suggests that, out of our five social support indicators, the
association between gender equality and adolescent life
satisfaction is best explained by a positive class
environment and supportive interactions between classmates.
Although differences across countries in norms and values
have been speculated to play a role in cross-national
differences in adolescent well-being
(Inchley et al. 2016)
quantitative research has explored this proposition. In the
current study, we analysed data from 34 countries in Europe
and North America to assess the relationship between
societal gender equality and adolescent life satisfaction. The
results of our study demonstrate that adolescents living in
relatively gender-equal countries report a higher life
satisfaction, compared to their peers in less gender-equal
countries. This association holds for boys as well as girls,
and it was explained by the perception of higher levels of
social support within the family, peer and school context
among adolescents living in relatively gender-equal
While the link between gender equality and adult
wellbeing has been confirmed in the literature, the link between
adolescent well-being and gender equality has been hardly
addressed. An exception to this is a study by Torsheim and
colleagues (2006), who examined associations between
gender equality and adolescent health complaints. They
found that adolescent boys and girls in relatively
genderequal countries reported lower levels of health complaints,
compared to boys and girls in relatively gender-unequal
countries. As life satisfaction is more than the absence of
health complaints, our study adds to the literature that
gender equality not only protects young people against
negative health outcomes, but also increases the likelihood
of high life satisfaction. Moreover, this study tests
mechanisms through which gender equality may impact
adolescent life satisfaction. Finally, by including national
economic factors (GNI per capita and the Gini index) in our
model, we demonstrate that gender equality is associated
with adolescent well-being over and above economic
Our finding that not national wealth, but societal gender
equality is a more important predictor of adolescent life
satisfaction in Europe and North America, is in line with
some recent empirical studies on adult populations. While
worldwide studies indicate that people are happier in
wealthier countries, the effect of wealth on life satisfaction
appears to fade when only relatively wealthy countries are
(Diener and Biswas-Diener 2002; Diener et al.
2010; Helliwell Layard and Sachs 2017)
. According to the
theory of Evolutionary Modernization
(Inglehart and Norris
2003; Inglehart et al. 2002)
, this occurs because people’s
values, life strategies, and conditions for happiness change
as they move from low to high levels of economic and
physical security. In line with
hierarchy, people in relatively wealthy countries attach greater
importance to issues such as self-actualization, human
rights, morality and equality—as opposed to (greater)
economic growth. Consequently, these factors become more
important determinants of life satisfaction than economic
Gender equality can be considered an important—if not
“the most central component”
(Inglehart et al. 2002; p. 15)
—of value change in postindustrial societies. For
adolescents specifically, gender equality may contribute to life
satisfaction as it generates “a culture of trust and tolerance”
(p. 15), in which feminine values such as cooperation,
modesty and social support have a more central place, as
compared to traditional masculine values such as
competition, assertiveness, and achievement. Children who are
raised in cultures with predominantly feminine values, learn
to be tolerant towards each other, to care for each other, and
to respect self-expression and individual freedom. In turn,
they may know they can expect the same from others. This
is reflected in their perceptions of how easily they can talk
to their parents or best friend about sensitive issues, the
extent to which they like school, and the extent to which
they rate their classmates as supportive. In the light of all
the social, physical, and emotional transitions adolescents
go through (e.g., striving for more autonomy from parents;
intensifying peer contacts; exploring identity), having a
socially supportive network within the family, peer, and
school context is a very powerful asset.
Our finding that gender equality affects life satisfaction
equally for boys and girls is also in line with findings on
(Holter 2014; Kawachi et al. 1999)
the belief that gender equality is a women’s—or in this case
a girls’—issue is still widely held, gender equality involves
men and boys as well (Kimmel 2000). Boys’ lower life
satisfaction in relatively gender-unequal countries is not due
to a direct reduction of their opportunities, but appears to be
related to relatively low levels of perceived social support in
their environment. The finding that not only girls, but also
boys benefit from gender equality parallels the “spirit level”
argument posed by
Wilkinson and Pickett (2010)
income inequality in societies. This argument states that a
society with low income inequality works better for all (not
just for the poor), because smaller inequalities within
societies increase trust, improve health, and lower crime and
violence. The benefits of societal gender equality may work
in a similar fashion.
This study should be interpreted with knowledge of its
limitations. First, our data remain inherently correlational in
nature; thus, we encourage readers to refrain from making
causal conclusions about the associations between gender
equality and adolescent life satisfaction. Given that we
measure gender equality as reported by the UNDP (and not
adolescents themselves), we do however avoid some
potential problems of endogeneity (i.e., life satisfaction
influencing adolescents’ perceptions of gender equality).
Moreover, previous research at the individual level has
shown that, although attitudes on gender equality and
wellbeing seem to have some mutual effect on each other, the
main causal chain seems to run from gender equality to
(Holter et al. 2009)
. A second limitation is a
potential selectivity bias in our sample due to our use of
complete case analysis. Given that non-respondents are
likely from higher risk groups, we possibly have slightly
inflated estimates of adolescent life satisfaction. Reducing
variability in the sample may result in an underestimation of
the association between predictors and life satisfaction.
Third, a critical question is whether measures of adolescent
life satisfaction are valid and reliable across cultures.
Selfreports may be vulnerable to contextual factors
question wording and order effects, translation effects,
different response styles; Diener et al. 2013)
. Yet, even though
these factors may play a role, they are unlikely to explain
the substantial cultural differences that have been observed
(Tov and Diener 2009)
. It might also be an
oversimplification to view countries as contextual units
homogeneous within themselves with regard to the dominance of
certain social standards. However, given the way
currentlyavailable data sets and indicators of gender inequality are
constructed, they appear to be a reasonable unit of analysis
for empirical work. Finally, a fourth limitation entails that
we were not able to control for some potentially important
predictors of adolescent life satisfaction at the individual
level, such as personality characteristics and intrapersonal
(Proctor et al. 2009)
, due to the limited
availability of measures in the HBSC dataset. If future
datasets become available that include such measures, then
replications of our analyses including these factors would be
warranted. Future research may examine the confounding or
moderating role of such individual-level characteristics, as
well as focus more extensively on mechanisms through
which societal gender equality may affect adolescent
wellbeing, for example by looking at national social policies
supporting gender equality within the family and by
measuring actual involvement of mothers and fathers in child
This study also has a number of strengths. First, the use
of large, nationally representative samples and the inclusion
of 34 countries increase the generalizability of our findings.
Second, by applying multilevel analyses, we take into
account the hierarchical clustering of individuals within
countries. This approach is conservative, especially
compared to existing research on the link between national
characteristics and life satisfaction, which is largely based
on correlational studies with aggregated data
(Diener et al.
. Finally, the simultaneous inclusion of both economic
(GNI per capita and Gini index) and social (gender equality)
national factors in this study is innovative; previous studies
have rarely analysed social and economic indicators of
health and well-being in a single design
(Ahnguist et al.
2012; Ottova et al. 2012)
Cross-national differences in adolescent life satisfaction in
Europe and North America are consistent, but remain
poorly understood. In contrast with previous studies that
predominantly focused on the explanatory role of economic
factors, this study takes a more social approach. It
demonstrates that adolescents have a higher life satisfaction when
living in countries with high levels of gender equality,
compared to countries with low levels of gender equality—
irrespective of individual and national economic factors.
While some people still believe that gender equality is a
women’s or girls’ issue, this study clearly shows that not
only girls, but also boys benefit from higher levels of
societal gender equality. The association between societal
gender equality and adolescent life satisfaction was
explained by the perception of social support within the
family, peer and school context. These findings underscore
the importance of building a society that promotes equality
and recognizes the value of social support for its individual
Acknowledgements This study used survey data collected in the
2009/10 cycle of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children
(HBSC) study. The HBSC study is an international study carried out in
collaboration with WHO/EURO. The international coordinator of the
2009/10 study was Candace Currie, University of St. Andrews,
Scotland. The databank manager was Professor Oddrun Samdal,
University of Bergen, Norway. A complete list of participating
countries and researchers is available on the HBSC website (http://
www.hbsc.org). The data collection for each HBSC survey is funded
at the national level. The authors also thank Raili Välimaa for her
feedback on an earlier draft of the article.
Funding This research did not receive any specific grant from
funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
The data collection for the HBSC data was funded at the national level
in each country.
Authors’ Contributions M.D.L. designed the study, interpreted the
data and drafted the manuscript; T.H. participated in the design of the
study, performed the statistical analysis, and helped interpreting the
results; G.S. participated in the study design, interpretation of the data
and helped to draft the manuscript; T.T. participated in the
interpretation of the data and helped to draft the manuscript; W.V.
conceived of the study, participated in the study design and interpretation
of the data, and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and
approved the final manuscript.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no
Ethical Approval Each country obtained approval to conduct the
survey from the ethics review board or equivalent regulatory body
associated with their institution.
Informed Consent Participation was voluntary, and consent was
sought from school administrators, parents and children as per national
human subject requirements.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://crea
tivecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
Margaretha de Looze is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary
Social Science at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her major
research interests include socioeconomic and gender inequalities in
adolescent health, well-being, and risk behaviors.
Tim Huijts is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of
York, United Kingdom. His major research interests include
socioeconomic inequalities in health, political regimes and health,
gender equity and depression, and ethnic diversity.
Gonneke Stevens is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Social
Science at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her major research
interests include ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender differences in
child mental health, well-being and risk behaviors in the general as
well as at-risk populations.
Torbjorn Torsheim is Professor of Psychosocial Sciences at the
University of Bergen, Norway. His major research interests include
socioeconomic and gender inequalities in adolescent health,
wellbeing, and risk behaviors.
Wilma Vollebergh is Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science at
Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her major research interests
include longitudinal studies on trajectories of (mental) health and risk
behaviors in adolescence, and the importance of social inequality for
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