How alcohol consumption and gender are linked
A recent global study of drinking habits indicates that women are now equal with men when it comes to alcohol consumption. An analysis, published in the journal BMJ Open, looks at the convergence of drinking habits between men and women over time, from 1891 to 2014. It merges the results of 68 international studies, published since 1980, to look at the changing ratio of male to female drinking over the years.
The study covered 4 million people and showed that alcohol consumption and related health problems used to be much more tipped towards men. That has now changed. It appears this one area we have indeed achieved gender parity.But is that necessarily a good thing?
The statistics the study found were:
- Men used to be 2.2 times more likely to drink alcohol than women, now its 1.1 times.
- Men used to be 3 times more likely to drink to problematic levels, now its 1.2 times.
- They were also 3.6 times more likely to have health complications due to drinking, whereas now it is 1.3
They cited that changing gender roles could be to blame for this shift, but what about other factors that surround drink culture?
In the UK one study found we massively overtook our US cousins when it came to binge drinking with 28% to 16.9% respectively admitting to an excessive drinking session in the last week. So has alcohol consumption in general changed or just for the ladies?
The study covered the period from 1891 to 2001. However, less than 50 years ago women could be denied service in a pub based on their gender, so it’s not too startling to hear that more women have taken to drinking alcohol in recent decades. Social taboos around gender and socialising have been eroded.
Alcohol consumption and ladette culture
In the 1970’s and 80’s there was a sharp increase in the number of women, particularly those under 29, who were admitted to hospital in the UK for alcohol related illnesses and offenses. Public opinion decided that this shift was due to ‘empty nest syndrome’, even though most of the women were too young to have grown up children. They pinned the change as a middle class way to deal with the sadness of children leaving home.
When it did come to addressing the younger women’s increase in alcohol consumption, the need to be more ‘male’ and to emulate a male (“ladette”) drinking culture was identified. The extension of licensing laws in 2003 embedded the ladette culture even more deeply with an increase in binge drinking amongst younger women.
Jeremy Corbyn raised eyebrows back in September when he said that work places shouldn’t encourage drinking between colleagues as it wasn’t fair to working mothers. In the time span that this study covers the number of women in work also increased dramatically, meaning that more of them were introduced to work-drinking culture. With child care roles and gender balance in relationships changing in the last few years, it’s not surprise that the number of women drinking after work is on the rise: they’re no longer ‘abandoning the children’ to go out, they’re taking it in turns.
Binge drinking and an increase in alcohol related illnesses is a serious problem. More does need to be done to encourage sensible drinking by all genders, but the increase in women’s alcohol consumption should be viewed in a wider social context.
Women are waiting longer to get married, have children and settle down, leaving them larger budgets and more time to focus on their social lives. Pubs and bars are slowly becoming more female friendly. The idea that women and children are invading the male ‘safe zones’ of pubs is becoming outdated and businesses are realising the untapped spending power of women who want to enjoy their social lives.
Wine-o’clock – and school run Mums
But it’s not just young women getting caught up in the trend of binge drinking who need to be careful. Middle-class, middle-aged women are twice as likely to be regular drinkers and to drink more heavily than any other group. Ending a long day with a glass of wine seems perfectly reasonable, but many women are finding that glass turning into 3 or 4, or even a bottle a night. It’s seen as a reward for a hard day’s work. Alcohol can also become a way to self-medicate against stress. Some women even admit to using it to help with post natal depression.
Since alcohol abuse is usually associated with rowdy nights out ending with a hangover, it can be hard for the school run Mums to see a potential issue with what they’re doing, even though they’re drinking in excess of the recommended units.
Women a target market?
There has also been a cultural shift in the marketing of alcohol, with female consumers being a target demographic. The early 1990’s saw the introduction of ‘alcopops.’ Now associated with underage teens behind a tool shed, ‘alcopops’ were originally designed for women who wanted to drink, but didn’t like the taste of alcohol.
Since then there has been an increase in the number of campaigns targeting women, from ‘skinny’ wine, to cheap supermarket deals encouraging women to pick up a bottle (or few) with their groceries. Sexist alcohol adverts, like the Belvedere Vodka advert below, met a backlash with companies trying to appeal to women but getting caught up in ‘sex sells’ stereotypes. Should we even be supporting these brands?
With alcohol a double-edged swords for women, the trend for clubs and venues to offer special promotional deals to attract women grew, with free entry and a complimentary drink free etc. Attractive though this was to a girls night out, it was nothing more than bait to lure in the bigger spenders (men.) Women are being more vocal about inappropriate behaviour in clubs. Although the major brands promise to tackle issues caused by luring women in to drink more and draw in male punters, is still problematic and needs to be addressed.
Women used to be advised to drink less than men, 14 to 21 units respectively. Now the NHS guidelines have set 14 units with at least 3 alcohol free days for everyone. Yet alcohol does affect women more adversely than men, as we tend to be lighter ,with reduced water percentage in our bodies, which means we absorb alcohol faster and in more concentrated amounts. Women who regularly drink alcohol increase their chances of developing liver and heart disease as well as an increased risk of breast cancer.
So to drink or not to drink?
Whether it’s the rise in girls nights out, older women staying in with a glass of Chardonnay or those choosing to socialise with their partners, rather than waiting at home for them, women’s increased alcohol consumption seems to be a direct correlation with a shift in gender role confinements. Rather than trying to emulate ‘lad culture’ women are realising that they can make their own fun. But we do need to be very aware of the related health risks, which need to be addressed for both genders, not just women.
So let’s just all remember to drink responsibly, no matter who you are.