Sleep Is Different for Women Than for Men, and No, It’s Not Women’s Fault.

Nap when you get a chance. There’s no telling when you'll get your next good night's sleep.

Sleep Is Different for Women Than for Men, and No, It’s Not Women’s Fault.
Illustration by Alena Berger.

Any woman who’s ever taken home a paycheck is likely familiar with the gender pay gap. Regular readers of The Persistent may also be familiar with the gender health gap, the gender reading gap, and the myth of the gender ambition gap. (And coming from The Persistent this Thursday—the gender cooking gap!)

But just when I thought we might—at least for the time being—be safe from more pernicious gaps, enter our latest plight. 

It visits us in the dead of night, in our wildest (interrupted) dreams, quietly and infuriatingly: the gender sleep gap. 

For years I’ve been convinced that I need more sleep than my husband. Informal surveys of my female friends and acquaintances confirm that: seven or eight hours, which—according to credible healthcare guidelines should be plenty—often just doesn’t feel like enough.

As hot, humid weather envelops much of the northern hemisphere, nights can feel like endless sweaty marathons of tossing and turning, interspersed with sips of water and trips to the bathroom, but no chance of that deep and peaceful slumber I so desperately need.

Lying awake at night, I’ve wondered, is it all in my mind? Am I just less resilient than my husband?

Lying awake at night, I’ve wondered, is it all in my mind? Am I just less resilient than my husband? (He seems to be doing just fine with his sleep.) Am I simply a complainer? Am I eating the wrong thing? Doing the wrong exercise? Popping the wrong melatonin pills? 

In a quest to assuage my doubting mind, I decided to find out. 

It didn’t take long to establish that yes, sleep really is different for women than it is for men and no, it’s not women’s fault.

Sleeping 101

First, some basics. A Gallup survey from April established that many people— regardless of gender—are unsatisfied with their sleep habits. In fact, for the first time since 2001, the survey found that a majority of U.S. adults—57%—said that they would feel better if they got more sleep, while only 42% said they get as much sleep as they need. These figures have almost flipped entirely from 2013, when Gallup last conducted the same poll. At that time, 56% of Americans said they got the sleep they needed and 43% did not.

This decline in sleep satisfaction is almost certainly correlated with the number of hours that people say they’re getting, the researchers concluded. In 1942, for example, 59% were getting eight-plus hours of sleep, while only 3% reported getting five hours or fewer. By 1990, the percentage reporting eight or more hours had fallen to 27%, while the proportion getting five or fewer was up to 14%. Today, a mere quarter of people are getting more than eight hours of nightly shut-eye. The percentage getting five or fewer? A full 20%.

Beneath the surface of these numbers there’s a clear gender trend: Women have been consistently more likely to report not getting enough sleep, according to Gallup. The latest poll confirms it: Only 36% of women—compared with 48% of men—said they get the sleep they need.

Explaining the Exhaustion 

So what’s going on? The culprit, in short, is stress.

According to the American Psychological Association, the relationship between sleep and stress goes both ways: Those who sleep less are more stressed, and those who are more stressed, sleep less. (And yes, the latest Gallup numbers track this too. They show that 63% of those who report wanting more sleep say they frequently experience stress.)

Meanwhile, a multitude of surveys and research reports show that women tend to be more stressed—even burned out—than men. We know that women, and particularly mothers, are more likely to be faced with the daily balancing act of unpaid labor and paid work. Women also don’t dedicate as many hours to relaxation and hobbies as men do. And yes, of course the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated this. So is it really surprising that women, when they finally get the chance to climb into bed and turn off the lights, often find themselves unable to stop their minds from bouncing all over the place? 

Sure, the body might be resting, but the brain is still whizzing through the day’s never-ending to-do list.

Sure, the body might be resting, but the brain is still whizzing through the day’s never-ending to-do list.

Ever wondered why a woman, whose attention is split multiple ways during the day, might find herself compulsively scrolling social media—bleary-eyed and foggy-brained—at 11:45 p.m. even though sleep calls? Might it be because that’s the only time she truly has to herself? The only moment of the day when idle scrolling isn’t usurped by a task that’s far more consequential and urgent. We’ve all read about how detrimental blue light is to our ability to fall asleep

And then, once she does finally nod off, who’s more likely to wake up if a baby cries in the night? One study done at the University of Michigan, found that working mothers are two-and-a-half times as likely as working fathers to bear the burden of interrupted sleep to take care of others.

The Biological Basics of Sleep

Setting aside the to-do list for a moment, it turns out there’s a purely biological element to the gender sleep gap, too. 

A scientific paper recently published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews explains that there are a host of factors for why sleep is experienced differently by women and men. Circadian rhythms (which can differ between genders) as well as hormones and, of course, the menstrual cycle play a role. (Women in the study generally reported more sleep disturbances, insomnia and awakenings during the week before her period and the first few days of it.) All of these can influence the level of the sleep hormone melatonin in our bodies, for example. This also means that the optimal conditions for getting a night of good quality sleep can vary wildly between women and men.

Historically, scientists haven’t really understood why women tended to complain more about sleeping badly because—surprise, surprise—they assumed their male study subjects would tell them everything they needed to know. And women’s experiences? Well surely those could just be extrapolated from what scientists had learned about men. Justifications for this, the authors of this latest paper put it, included “the assumption that findings derived from male subjects are universally applicable” and “fearing that hormonal variations in females might add complexity to study designs and interpretation of results.” Those bloody hormones; always making matters so complicated. 

Busy Brains

And then there’s the problem of quieting all that brain activity.

In 2021, researchers at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland examined the sleep patterns of women with the express aim of trying to get to the bottom of an intriguing paradox: Women were complaining that they were waking up in the night but sleep metrics were showing that they’d slumbered all the way through. 

Writing about the study for The Washington Post, Caren Chesler explained that the researchers glued 256 electrodes to the scalp and face of the women to get a better read on brain activity during the night. Then, they woke the study participants at different points during the night and asked them if they felt like they had been asleep or awake at that particular moment.

What they found was fascinating. The women who felt they had been awake frequently during the night, although they appeared to have been asleep, were experiencing a high-frequency, almost wake-like brain activity in a small part of their brain. This sort of activity is not detected in standard sleep studies in which only a handful of electrodes are used. So yes, even when women are technically sleeping it may be that part of the brain is in overdrive trying to process all of the things that are going on in life. (The study was carried out only with female subjects, so more research is needed to figure out if the effect is unique to women.) 

In conclusion, we at The Persistent are here to tell you that, no, it’s not in your mind. No, you’re not hysterical. Yes, the gender sleep gap is real. And if you’re feeling like the “requisite” seven to eight hours of sleep is not enough, it’s because it’s not.