If you relied only on media coverage, you’d likely assume that women in Australia drink as much alcohol as men. Every few months there are news stories focussing on women’s drinking – recently emphasising the boozy mum culture (see examples from both Fairfax and News Limited papers).
These articles are often based on research and focus on increases in alcohol consumption by particular age groups or make strong claims about how women’s drinking has caught up to men’s.
The narrative of a narrowing gap between men’s and women’s drinking was reinforced by a recent meta-analysis of global drinking surveys that suggested women are catching up to men.
Much of this coverage is based on something real – survey reports of alcohol consumption show an increase among women over the age of 40 in recent years, but the media emphasis on this result obscures the fact that men in this age group are twice as likely to drink riskily as women.
In a recent study, my colleagues and I at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research tried to unpack the current Australian evidence in this area. We analysed Australian drinking data between 2001 and 2013 to explore the extent to gender convergence was happening here.
Using data from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, we examined trends in five different measures of drinking across eight age groups (from 14-17 year-olds, up to 70 and over).
Surprisingly, we found very little evidence that the gap between men’s and women’s drinking had narrowed.
Only for those aged between 50 and 69 was there significant gender convergence. Even after this narrowing of the gap, men in this age group were still more than twice as likely as women to report risky drinking (e.g. 27% of men aged 50-59 drank at long-term risky levels in 2013 compared with 12% of women).
For all other age groups, the gap between men and women remained stable. In 2001, men aged 18-24 were roughly twice as likely as similarly aged women to drink at risky levels and – while risky drinking fell for both groups – the gap remained the same in 2013.
Of course, these findings don’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about women’s drinking. Rates of risky drinking among 50-69 year-olds have increased in recent years, and Jenny Valentish’s recent book highlights the challenges women face in finding effective treatment.
But researchers and policy advocates need to be careful about over-emphasising the problem here – men remain 2-3 times as likely to drink at risky levels and experience nearly three times the burden from injury and disease related to alcohol.
Meanwhile, women’s drinking – and especially heavy drinking – generates disproportionate media interest which often relies on particularly stigmatising discussions of women’s drinking.
Thus, it is important to develop a nuanced understanding of trends in consumption across genders in Australia. Our findings highlight that the gender gap for drinking remains substantial and that there has been only a small narrowing of that gap since the turn of the century.