Interview: the gender wellbeing gap with Felicity Harley

Felicity Harley’s new book Balance & Other B.S.: How to hold it together when you're having (doing) it all takes an in-depth look at modern women and the so-called myth of a utopian balance. She talks about the gender wellbeing gap, the importance of connection, exhaustion and what men can do to help, and calls on the likes of Jane Caro, Yumi Stynes, Tanya Plibersek, Kelly Cartwright and more to share their wisdom. We jumped on the phone to chat with her about what she found out.

Felicity, reading your book was the first time I have ever heard the phrase ‘the gender wellbeing gap.’ Can you tell me a bit about where that comes from and what you found out about it?

Well, there are so many gaps, aren’t there? You’ve just got to keep track of them all.

I suppose the gender wellbeing gap is a name that I kind of came up with but I do think it's definitely there. There is a gender gap in Australia on the mental health front between rates of anxiety and depression. But also, more the wellbeing side of things, where you don’t have someone with a diagnosed mental illness, there’s a big gap there, too. Like me. I just go about my day. Sometimes I feel down, sometimes I feel a bit anxious and other times I might be worried.

I came across this great survey which was done for the Jean Hailes Foundation. They do lots of great surveys into mental wellbeing for women and they did one with over 10,000 participants. They spoke to all those women, who were aged 18 and over, and asked them questions about their overall health and general wellbeing and there were some really concerning findings that came from that. 

So 67% of us feel nervous, anxious, or on edge. This affects our sleep. They found 78% have difficulty falling or staying asleep. There's many of us, one in three, that don't have enough time for ourselves. Nearly 70% of us have a foggy head. These are just some of the traits of women's wellbeing. I think women's wellbeing is in decline and so that's where I think that gap exists.

Before writing this book, you were the founding editor of body+soul magazine and also the founding editor of Whimn, so your professional life has involved talking to women, working with women and leading teams of mostly women. I’m curious, how did you see this gap play out as a leader of a mostly female team? What were the implications of it in the workplace? 

I've worked with women my whole career. I've worked with men as well, so I can do a comparison between the two sexes. Women worry more than men. It's in our psyche, that we worry about things and this obviously affects our sleep. My experience is that women, especially in online media, would worry a great deal about what they were putting out there.

I had so many conversations where they would be saying, "I've written this op-ed, I'm putting it out there, what sort of comments am I getting?" I saw this play out every day with the women that I worked with. We worry about what someone said and think. "Should I change that?" or "Maybe I've hurt that person." I do feel that maybe we carry a bit more of an emotional burden in that way.

Something else I really loved about this book was that you devoted an entire chapter to the power of connection. You were touching on family and friend relationships and making meaningful time to connect with other people. What do you think it is about these connections and taking this time to connect that is so important for women?

I dedicated a whole chapter to friendship and connection and because often when we're overwhelmed and often when our wellbeing is really low and when we're feeling really down, the first thing to go is our friendships. Especially when we're occupied with kids and family, we think, "Oh, I just don't have enough time to catch up with that person," or "I don't have enough time to go out for drinks. I'm too tired, I couldn't be bothered.” But what I found out from my research and talking to experts, is that making time to see friends is the one thing that can lift you out of your sombre mood. It can help make sense of your overwhelm. 

There was a great study done at Harvard over many decades. I think it was started in the 1930's, that followed men initially, and then women came into the mix later on. The study found that the number one thing that all people came back to when they were on their deathbed was connection. The importance of good relationships and good friendships. They're the things that get you through the dark times. I think especially now when our world's chaotic and bizarre and who knows what's happening next, to pick up the phone and hear someone's voice is so important. 

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