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Map of the Week - Gender and self-esteem

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Mark Easton | 12:44 UK time, Monday, 9 February 2009

How much do you love yourself today?

If you are a British woman, the chances are that the answer is: a lot less than most British men.

My Map of the Week comes, once again, from the fascinating National Accounts of Well-being site. This time, I thought we might consider "self-esteem" across Europe. And what a curious tale it tells.

Map of self-esteem in different European countries
Self-esteem in Europe; source: National Accounts of Well-being

Broadly, the UK is slightly less self-confident than other parts of Europe, with the Spanish and Germans the most self-assured of our continental neighbours. Out of 22 nations, we come fifteenth overall.

What is clear, however, is the gender gap in Britain. While the blokes are pretty much average in European terms, women have a much lower score. A score of five is average; men are 5.02 and women are just 4.35.

male self esteem
Male self-esteem in Europe; source: National Accounts of Well-being

female self esteem
Female self-esteem in Europe; source: National Accounts of Well-being

This could be dismissed as classic Venus and Mars stuff: men tend to be cocksure and boastful while women are more humble and reserved. But the difference between the genders varies quite a bit.

While French women are a giant eight points below their male counterparts in terms of self-esteem, in Ireland the difference is just two. And intriguingly, Ukrainian women outscore their men, if only just: 4.54 to 4.53.

Could this be a language issue? The results are extrapolated from the European Social Survey in which pollsters ask how much people agree with statements such as:
 • I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile
 • In general I feel very positive about myself
 • At times I feel as if I am a failure
 • On the whole my life is close to how I would like it to be

I don't know whether such phrases have different connotations in different cultures. Does the word "failure" evoke something more or less dramatic in Spanish, Finnish or Flemish? It does seem surprising, to me at least, that the happiest European nations on so many measures do so badly on self-esteem.

The Nordic and the Scandinavians score particularly poorly, with Finland, Norway and Sweden appearing in the bottom four or five and well below the European average. Are happiness and humility linked?

Looking at the self-esteem of different generations is instructive too.

self-esteem, ages 25-34
Self-esteem in Europe among those aged 25-34; source: National Accounts of Well-being

self-esteem, ages 75+
Self-esteem in Europe among those aged 75+; source: National Accounts of Well-being

In Britain, the 25-to-34-year-olds scored just 4.44 (below average), while our senior citizens over the age of 75 got 5.45 (well above).

There is something going on here, but I can't work out what it is and would be grateful for your help.

One thing we do know is that self-belief, self-confidence and self-esteem are vital qualities for people in a crisis. So how we think of ourselves is going to be an important factor in how we find our way through the economic gloom.


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  • 1. At 1:16pm on 09 Feb 2009, charliehowarth wrote:

    There could be a variety of reasons for the gender gap, all of them social, rather than innate. A crucial one could be around anxiety caused by one's body. There's a lot of sociological evidence to suggest that today more so than ever women are judged by the bodies, specifically whether they meet the 'thin ideal'. If you open any women's magazines, you will see numerous examples of ads and articles that raise women's anxieties in this way. This is why research shows that a majority of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. This fear is likely to be a drain on women's self-esteem.

    Of course, men are encouraged to care about their bodies much more than in the past. However, it's certainly not to the extreme extent of women.

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  • 2. At 1:56pm on 09 Feb 2009, Lazarus wrote:

    Personally I'd rather the money spent producing all this nonsense in the first place be better spent elsewhere. That would improve my well-being no end.

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  • 3. At 2:08pm on 09 Feb 2009, digitalCuriousCat wrote:

    I was looking at UN data for life expectancy fairly recently comparing the difference between men and women and I believe I noticed that in the Ukraine the life expectancy was about the same. In fact if I remember correctly, I think Ukrainian men may in fact live marginally longer than Ukranian women.

    As everyone knows, in general men's life expectancy is normally shorter than women's. So what does life expectancy and "self-esteem" data tell us? Lower "self esteem" or "happiness" leads to longer life expectancy? That is not a totally idiotic correlation after all high "self-esteem" will probably lead to greater risk taking and hence greater stress which is good for you up to a point before it overstresses you.

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  • 4. At 5:20pm on 09 Feb 2009, Jan wrote:

    I just did the survey out of curiosity but I'm not sure it measures self esteem. It seemed to be more about how happy/satisfied one is with one's lot.

    My first thought in seeing the maps and that Germany and Spain figure the highest is that both these 2 countries had awful dictatorships and a terrible time of it in the 30s. Perhaps those who survived that and their children were just so grateful that it made them much less dissatisfied than tne rest of us.

    We in Britain are well-known for moaning about things in general (especially the weather) so our result was a bit of a surprise to me. Also that pensioners are so much happier than younger people. I thought there were a lot of pensioners living on the poverty line cold and hungry. This is what the media would have us believe. On the other hand there are a lot of the older generation who have "never had it so good". They have good pensions, reasonable health, good housing and ample finances for a varied and interesting retirement. I doubt whether these circumstances will last for long for subsequent generations in the present economic climate.

    It would be interesting to repeat the survey and see how it changes over the years.

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  • 5. At 6:36pm on 09 Feb 2009, FatPeace - A Promise to Heather wrote:

    I agree wholeheartedly with CharlieHowarth (#1) - Britain is probably unique in Europe in having a truly toxic media landscape, where any female celebrity who has gone from a size 0 to a size 2 is lambasted as 'fat' and woe betide those who don't lose their 'baby weight' fast enough or who 'cheat' their way to thin-ness through potentially lethal weight-loss-surgery.

    The whole thing is part of an immense marketing machine with the sole purpose of convincing - or frightening - people (mainly women, but increasingly men too) that they are somehow 'broken' or have 'failed' and that only by purchasing X product (be it a diet, make-up, clothes or whatever) can they redeem themselves in the merciless and ever-judgmental eyes of their peers.

    Couple that with our near-hysterical obsession with obesity (which interestingly means that most of the women one now sees portrayed by the media are either ridiculously thin or unrepresentatively fat) and these results come as no surprise.

    Weight has become our national cultural currency; the notions of what is 'normal' have been so far distorted by the pressure-group industry and their useless BMI scale, and we're now at the point where they're remaking old kids' TV shows with the fat characters replaced with thin ones and teaching toddlers as young as two that you need to exercise so as not to become 'obese' - probably the most over and inappropriately-used in the English language - with all the social and moral condemnation that now engenders.

    Against such a backdrop I'm actually amazed there is still a single soul in this country who enjoys a normal psychological relationship with food and their body, but I'm sure the powers-that-be are working on them too...

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  • 6. At 6:44pm on 09 Feb 2009, John Ellis wrote:

    Well unless your a WAG in the UK your fat n ugly maybe that explains it :)

    I blame the airbrush.

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  • 7. At 8:55pm on 09 Feb 2009, EdwinaTS wrote:

    The self-esteem survey is rubbish!
    The questions stated here measures achievement with life ambition. That's all.

    .I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile
    • In general I feel very positive about myself
    • At times I feel as if I am a failure
    • On the whole my life is close to how I would like it to be

    I would say the high achieving and happy Scandinavians aim high, hence this survey classified them as having low self-esteem.

    Edwina Lee

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  • 8. At 10:42pm on 09 Feb 2009, tarquin wrote:

    Maybe it's the website - I've been on there and taken the tests and they don't seem very academic - you don't even need an account, and there's no weighting as far as I can tell

    it's no yougov

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  • 9. At 01:09am on 10 Feb 2009, harrietharmman wrote:

    Perhaps men in the Uk had merely achieved more than women, or at least our society values their achievements more than a women's.

    We have too many awful feminists in the government such as Patriccia Hewitt who described women who stay at home to look after their children as "a real problem".

    Given such disgraceful attitudes no wonder women have lower self esteem. There isn't enough value placed on what people do outside of the workplace, and there is too much of a stigma surrounding traditional families (something which isn't such a problem in other countries)

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  • 10. At 09:08am on 10 Feb 2009, bigsammyb wrote:

    Given that that company has never asked me about my self esteem i conclude that those results are worthless and irrelevant.

    How can a sample of a thousand people be remotely accurate or relevant? It can't.

    Same goes for BBC viewing figures you have no idea whatsoever how many people are watching a tv show or listening to a radio program.

    You have no idea whatsoever.

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  • 11. At 10:32am on 10 Feb 2009, sally87 wrote:

    Though I genereally agree with the relationship between self-esteem and weight, there was nothing in this survey about looks at all.

    I agree with the comments that say it's not about self-esteem either though. Saying your life isn't that great or that you're unhappy doesn't mean you have low self-esteem - sometimes it just means you're being honest.

    It could be argued that it's the other way around; people who dislike their life, don't feel they get respected, etc. obviously feel they deserve more. People who are satisfied with their lives even when they are not happy - those are the ones with low self-esteem, who don't expect anything better for themselves.

    I got 2.3 but I think alot of that has to do with what #9 says - I am a full-time mum at the moment, and am often made to feel like I am taking a pause from life for a few years before joining useful society again! Once my circumstances change I have a feeling my score will be higher, but that won't mean I've changed at all.

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  • 12. At 10:58am on 10 Feb 2009, E_Crurater wrote:

    There is always a danger of seeming arrogant (or overly self-esteeming) in saying the answer's obvious but it is, isn't it. You can't have high self-esteem if you are constantly having to submerge your own identity beneath an image borrowed from someone else. And yet that is what years of commercially driven style stalinism in this country have taught us to do, particularly if we are women. It's part of our culture. We can't just admire celebrity, or take or leave fashion. We have to remodel ourselves, re-assign ourselves, re-label ourselves. It is instilled in us like a crazy duty from babyhood - you are who you fawn over, you are what you buy. Paper beats rock. Style shatter self. Only when we are old and of no further interest to marketing do we get any relief. And then, as if by magic, our self esteem makes a bid to re-emerge.

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  • 13. At 12:46pm on 10 Feb 2009, grumpynotoldman wrote:

    #12 Brilliant analysis! However when marketeers realise that 24-40's now have no cash, they'll focus on early retireds and downsizers, like me, and I'll enjoy watching their manipulating businesses go bust. I don't want and I certainly don't need their stuff.

    Mark, this survey shows how bad some research can be, or from the researchers' point of view, how much we need more research.
    From the funders point of view (Euro politics) it's a godsend and will keep them busy trying to influence us all for years.
    Social Science. Nor very social and not much science.

    These are not "clinical" populations so the reference points become quite a bit tenuous. A bigger sample would of course give a much more accurate picture, and the reason they left out the "Russians". Not European,?? and too confounding.
    So former soviet satellites who are now European are not confounding, No! it doesn't follow, as Ukraine results (don't) show.

    It's probably access to Vitamin D, but then that's chemistry not social or political science.
    Simplifying the question doesn't always get a simple answer.
    No wonder you are confused.
    Maps used to be a triumph of substance and presentation. Maybe our former beliefs are being manilulated by clever illusionists. Smoke and mirrors.

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  • 14. At 3:01pm on 10 Feb 2009, SandiaMan wrote:

    Some posting here would quickly jump to the conclusion that this data supports the assumpiton of the political left that females are perpetual victims of one thing or another. Perhaps it is this sick mindset that produces the lower self-esteem in the first place. The suggestion that the commercial media has the power to somehow turn females into immage zombies, insults the intelligence of women everywhere. It is instructive to ask onself what preconceived notions motivated such a study as this.

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  • 15. At 3:57pm on 10 Feb 2009, virtuousNettys wrote:

    Dear Mark Easton!

    I have lived in Wales for about ten years now (too long ;-)) - and with most women I have found it difficult to become really good friends.

    Indeed, the women I have met here are much (!!) less confident, much less happy, much less active (sports) - on the other hand they are not as industrious as my German women friends (do less housework / and less in the home to create a nice atmosphere).

    A lot of UK women I met were suffering from depression. The women appear to be less sparkling - in rural Wales. A lot has to do with class system still and where you grow up in the UK.
    You can have loads of self-esteem without appearing arrogant, I believe.

    Women (adults) still have girls' nights out...
    Wellness is unheard of in rural Wales still - the women get less opportunities.
    When certain women raise pints they have self-esteem for a little while - when reality catches up again.

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  • 16. At 5:31pm on 10 Feb 2009, divadlo wrote:

    The 'statistics' industry developed to such an huge extent in the last 30 years or so, almost every aspect of life has been 'researched' and 'analyzed' to produce 'data charts'. Given that all this is supposed to supply us with information from which we expect to understand more and therefore make better decisions from, the current state of the world certainly doesn't seem to support this ludicrous notion.
    How can incredibly complex elements of humankind such as self worth and its gender anomalies be transposed into graphs that we are supposed to value?
    To take such 'information' serious tells us more about the current mental health of our species than the research findings do!

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  • 17. At 1:03pm on 11 Feb 2009, DeniseCullum222 wrote:

    England is a small island that does not like the old children and women who want to have children and bring them up themselves. Which is an important job but unpaid so is not seen as worth will. And if you do not want a man in or the man you were with runs off to find himself as many men do when faced with being an adult and looking after their children then moan about it when the mother finds someone else to bring up his children.

    Children are not brought up to relate to others in a good way they are sexually repressed as sex is still dirty and the porno business keeps this going. The media still says that no matter who old or ugly a man is he is better than any woman and dumb women still blonds is better than any woman showing her brains and not her t*ts and god help her if she uses them for what they are there for feeding her child, in public sometimes but the media sells the image that a woman's body is open to discussion by all men and then we have the all male religious beliefs do their bit women are not allowed to be priests and Jesus only had male friends he was one of the lads.

    The Govenment has only women in it that kow tows to males they work with sell their souls for secondary power. And if they divorce and have no money well they will be on benefits and expect not to have relationship while on it women did not come from Adams rib and we live longer why is that? As for being depressed more men are depressives and they depress others.

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  • 18. At 4:10pm on 12 Feb 2009, veryfaraway wrote:

    I would say that self-esteem is very much related to how much you think you are in charge of your own life. And that depends on whether you're prepared to accept the consequences of your actions.
    UK has a blame culture - the gov, the banks, sexual stereotyping, the weather, advertising, your neighbours... ad infinitum.

    My father told me my life was in my hands so no need to blame anyone else - just get on with it and go for what you want. If someone thinks I'm too arrogant or stubborn or ugly or fat or whatever, it's their problem not mine.

    There again I live in Spain, where people in general really do just seem to get on with living life rather than constantly complaining about it.

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