S1:E12 | The Gender Sleep Gap : A special episode for International Women's Day

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The Gender Sleep Gap : A special episode for International Women's Day podcast

All This is a very special episode of the podcast dedicated to the gender sleep gap, in honour of International Women's Day.

So, let's dig in. 



Hello and welcome back to The Sleep Seekers Podcast. I’m your host, Emma Ashford. 


This is a very special episode and a bit of a break from our wind down series because I wanted to mark International Women's day with an episode dedicated to women and sleep

When I was thinking and planning for this episode, there is so much to unpack on the issues of women and sleep that I could easily have been talking for hours!

So, this is about lightly touching on each area, with an intention to go deeper with many of these issues in future episodes and various offerings. 

So, I’m going to talk about some of the issues relating to women and sleep and the gender sleep gap, I will talk a bit about some of the issues that contribute to these challenges and then we will talk a bit about what we can do to reduce the sleep gap

So, we have all heard of the gender pay gap but did you know there is also a gender sleep gap. Not spoken about so much but hugely impactful on women and women's wellbeing. 

Let me explain.

All adults need between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night. 

According to research, the average woman needs 8 hours and 27 minutes a night to be exact - do you get that?

An American study in 2017 found that fewer than two thirds of women get enough sleep each night

A 2019 UK study of 2000 people showed that women get an average of 3 hours less sleep than men a night. Which adds up to a mindblowing 1,095 hours difference per year.

They also found that as many of half of UK women feel constantly sleep deprived - which is not surprising given those statistics.

So, clearly there is an issue with not getting the right amount of sleep, but it has also been found that women experience a lower quality of sleep than men too. 

Women tend to experience more sleep fragmentation, meaning it is more broken and disturbed than mens. This has implications for how effective sleep can be if disruptions are occurring within sleep cycles. 

Women also tend to take longer to get to sleep and spend more time in restorative, slow wave deep sleep than men which may be due to compensating for their sleep deprivation. 


When you add all of this up, it’s not a generally great picture. When you know how important sleep is for physical and mental health and wellbeing and how sleep deprivation negatively effects every function in the body and the mind, this is really significant.The impact of this normalised sleep deprivation on women’s lives, their success, their self esteem etc is enormous. It makes me wonder how many women are living a sort of half a life, or are a shadow of what they could and should be. Having worked so much with people and their sleep, I know just how much can change in a persons life when they start getting enough sleep. 


So, let’s now think about what is contributing to this gender sleep gap. 

First of all, some significant sleep disruptors only affect women. This is across a month and also across the lifespan. 

There are hormones across a monthly cycle - 2 in 3 women report sleep problems during menstruation. This can be one day in a cycle or multiple days each cycle. 

Then there is pregnancy, childbirth and early parenthood - there are many issues here we don’t have time to go into. Due to hormonal changes it’s normal to have some sleep disruption and pregnancy related insomnia. There are also issues around lots of other sleep disruptors such as mood fluctuations, pain, needing the loo more and of course babies and young children causing some disruption. 

Not forgetting the menopause - which is full of sleep disruptors. The main ones being hot flushes and anxiety.

All of these female specific situations cause sleep disruption which will contribute to the gender sleep gap. But as well as this, pregnancy, early parenthood and menopause can all act as triggers to more significant sleep issues and insomnia. I have seen this time and time again - a problem starts in menopause or starts in pregnancy but continues long past that time. This is when these times have triggered a deeper sleep problem.


But, sleep research has disproportionately focused on men -this is a gender bias in medical research which has been seen time and time again. I listened to some podcasts on this and it blew my mind quite honestly. Women are much more challenging to research because of our hormonal fluctuations and changes. 

So, we have the physical and lifecycle differences of women which is one of the factors (a pretty big one) contributing to the gender sleep gap. 


We also have the fact that women are reportedly 1.7 times more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety. It is common with depression and anxiety to experience sleep problems as a secondary factor but this does not always happen by any means. However, this is likely to contribute to this sleep gap we are seeing. 

Perhaps linked to this is the fact that women are significantly more likely to be juggling various roles - work, caring responsibilities and otherwise and are more likely to carry the invisible load of a family.

The invisible load of the family refers to the fact that women tend to carry far more of the unnoticed and uncompensated physical, mental and emotional labour completed behind the scenes to keep our households happy, healthy and running smoothly. If there is something to organise, if a child is struggling with something, if there are presents to buy, party invites to respond to, teachers to liaise with, it tends to be women that pick up these tasks. This literally just touches the tip of the iceberg .. there is so much here. I think I will do an episode on this topic.

This concept comes from Dr Libby Weaver who wrote the book ‘The invisible load’. If you are interested in looking at this more, I will leave the link to the book in the show notes. 

This leads to feeling overloaded and overwhelmed as these tasks usually have to fit into the cracks - between paid work, the usual household tasks, looking after children, trying to maintain friendships and a relationship etc and at some point trying to get time to wash your hair! 

All this busyness and all these balls to juggle leads to brains that struggle to switch off and that compromise sleep - not getting enough of it and the quality being rubbish. If there is something to worry about it is often women laid awake thinking about it - and it happens at night time because there is no time in the day to process anything. 

What’s more, it can lead to struggling to get to bed on time because you need those quiet hours to get stuff done, or it is the only time you get to yourself and therefore feel like you want to make the most of it. 

We cover sleep procrastination in the sleep optimiser programme which is all about when you put off going to bed for various reasons. It is often, but not exclusively women that find this to be a challenge - and end up even more sleep deprived as a result. 

So, that is all of the environmental stuff exerting an influence on women and their sleep. Hormones, life stages, family structures etc. 


But what about sleep problems and insomnia - what about the people who are chronically not getting enough sleep and really suffering as a result.

Well, according to research, women are 40% more likely to suffer from a sleep problem than men. That’s a lot! And we have to think about the impact this would have on all areas of a woman's life and how well she can function and meet her potential.

But, from my experience in the last 12 years of working with people with sleep problems, I would say it has been a pretty 50/50 split between men and women in terms of the people accessing help in my sleep clinic. 

However, I have seen a lot of differences in terms of, on the whole I would say women are much more likely to just put up with a sleep problem or wait a long time before accessing help whereas men seem to have more of a problem solving mindset to it. 

I have also seen that men are often very quiet about sleep problems and tell no one or very few people about it whereas women will be much more open and talking about it with their friends, people at work. 

I think ultimately there needs to be much more research in the area of sleep and the factors that contribute to the sleep gap. 


What can women do to improve this? How can we as women get more sleep?

Get educated - this is what I believe in more than anything else. Understand your sleep, why you need it, how it works etc and then respect it and your need for it. Sleep is usually the first thing to be sacrificed by anyone feeling overloaded and this does not help anything and usually only leads to more problems. 


Take sleep seriously - you need it and you deserve it. No more suffering in silence. No more accepting rubbish sleep. No more thinking everything else is more important. We need to treat sleep as though it is as important as eating regularly and getting enough water. 


Work on stress management and good sleep habits and try to implement small positive changes wherever you can. Considering your wind down time is really important here - I have lots of podcasts from this series you can listen to based on that. You can also use the wind down journal to help you implement those small positive changes that add up to incremental changes in the right direction.


The world will constantly push us further and further - we have to create boundaries and push back! If we could close the sleep gap, I believe that would reduce other gender gaps too. Imagine how powerful women could be with enough sleep in the tank. 

I intend to explore lots of these areas more in future podcasts but until then I will include the links to my programmes that are designed to help you promote and protect the right amount of good quality, natural sleep for you and also my programme that can help you with stress management. 

You can also access my free sleep health check resource which will guide you through taking a good look at your sleep and where your gaps are.