The next feminist issue is sleep…or not

Over at The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington and Cindi Leive (Glamour’s editor-in-chief) have taken up a new cause for the new year: getting American women to sleep more.

“Americans are increasingly sleep-deprived,” they write, “and the sleepiest people are, you guessed it, women. Single working women and working moms with young kids are especially drowsy: They tend to clock in an hour and a half shy of the roughly 7.5-hour minimum the human body needs to function happily and healthfully.” (That is, they clock about 6 hours of sleep per night).

The reason? According to sleep expert Michael Breus, whom Huffington and Leive quote at length, “They have so many commitments, and sleep starts to get low on the totem pole. They may know that sleep should be a priority, but then, you know, they’ve just got to get that last thing done. And that’s when it starts to get bad.”

It sounds like a good story. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue. The figure that working moms of school-aged kids get only 6 hours of sleep per night came from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2007 Sleep in America poll, whose results are written about here.

There are two problems with this stat. One is that the NSF commonly partners with drug companies such as sanofi-aventis, maker of Ambien, one of the country’s most popular sleep drugs. They definitely have an interest in more people thinking they are sleep deprived than actually are. But the other problem is that the NSF’s annual poll is a “quick response” survey. The pollster simply asks you how many hours you sleep and you tell him. But people are notoriously unreliable at remembering these things, or averaging out exceptions (if you slept 6 hours 3 nights this week and 8 hours the other 4, you sleep over 7 hours a night — but you’ll probably remember the 3 lousy ones and say 6). In a culture in which sleep deprivation is a sign of how important you are– or how dedicated you are as a mom– it’s very easy to underestimate.

A more accurate way to figure out how many hours people sleep is to have them keep a time diary. This is exactly what the annual American Time Use Survey, done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, attempts to do. Averaged over thousands of Americans, it paints a very different picture of our sleep habits. The average American sleeps 8.3 hours on weekdays and 9.3 hours on weekends.  That doesn’t sound like a nation that’s “increasingly sleep-deprived” to me.

Of course, one could assume that that figure is tipped to the high side by students and retirees — surely working moms sleep a lot less, right? Not really. Married moms who work full time and have kids ages 6-17, according to this chart, sleep 8.09 hours per night. As for women being more sleep deprived than men? Married fathers who work full-time and have school-aged children actually sleep slightly less than their female counter-parts, though they, too, clock a full 8.0 hours per night.

This does not mean that individual women aren’t sleep deprived. It’s entirely possible that Cindi Leive only sleeps 5 hours per night. Though is that because of her work and her young kids, or is it because of her “wicked TV addiction” (which she fesses up to in the post)? For most women, I’d wager it’s more likely to be the latter. Despite Leive and Huffington’s assertion that women often feel that “they still don’t ‘belong’ in the boys-club atmosphere that still dominates many workplaces” and so “they often attempt to compensate by working harder and longer than the next guy,” married moms who work full-time clock about 6.5 fewer hours of work per week than married dads who work full-time. In other words, they are not working longer and harder, on average, than the next guy. In fact, they’re working a lot less.

So why do these stats get repeated by very smart women? There is the danger of thinking one’s own personal experience is universal, of course, and a woman who runs a major magazine and a woman who runs a major website have very different careers than the average woman. They, personally, may not sleep that much. But also, these stats allow women to paint themselves as victims, and to complain, rather than owning up to their own choices. As a culture, we’ve developed a narrative that moms put everyone else first and hence have no time for sleep because it makes us feel holier-than-thou and makes us feel better about not doing things by allowing us to claim that we don’t have time to do them. The truth is that we just don’t want to make them a priority. Moms who work full-time spend more time watching television than they do caring for their kids. Even for moms who aren’t in the workforce, the TV and childcare figures are close. That doesn’t sound like a matter of having so many commitments that sleep goes to the bottom of the totem pole–which is why, in fact, women on average are getting enough sleep.

2 thoughts on “The next feminist issue is sleep…or not

  1. Are either of these data sources dealing with the time between lying in bed and falling asleep? It is documented that women have more insomnia (difficulty falling asleep, or early rising) than men do.

  2. Thanks for calling them out!
    I believe women need to apply the same work flow efficiency they use at work to their home life. This is why the 168 hour concept makes tremendous sense! When I was a stay at home mom (am now a work from home FT mompreneur) I left the process improvement culture of a manufacturing plant. Months into my stay at home life with a part time business, I was overwhelmed. I said “woah…this doesn’t make sense”. So I applied work practices at home too. Treat the job of mom as the professional position it demands. if you’re not happy with the amount of sleep, get to the root cause of why, fix the root cause and don’t medicate it.

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