Sighs in the night: Ann Romney on women, men and economic anxiety

Among the more striking parts of Ann Romney’s polished, effective speech to the Republican convention in Tampa Bay last night, her observations about how women feel the pressure of tough economic times more acutely than men left me wondering.

Maybe that’s because I remember reading about how American males disproportionately suffered direct setbacks during the Great Recession. I’m thinking here of the 5.4 million men who lost their jobs in the U.S. between December 2007 and June 2009, or about seven men thrown out of work during the downturn for every three women laid off (although women have arguably fared somewhat worse than men during the recovery since then).

Why would we suppose that men don’t lose sleep the way women do about economic insecurity, especially so soon after a period when it was mostly men who were losing their jobs? Ann Romney, the wife of the Republican nominee to be the next U.S. president, asked her audience to concede that somehow, deep down, everybody just knows it’s women who bear more of the emotional burden during trying times.

“Sometimes I think that late at night, if we were all silent for just a few moments and listened carefully, we could hear a great collective sigh from the moms and dads across America who made it through another day,” she said, setting up these evocative lines: “And if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the women sighing a little bit more than the men. It’s how it is, isn’t it?”

Is it? Not in my experience. The moms and dads I know are subject to much the same worries. And if it happened that men were more in jeopardy of losing their jobs during a given period, I suspect it might follow that they’d be prone to more additional stress. Indeed, a study published a couple of months ago in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that to be the case.

The study, by Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, concluded that younger adults, low-income earners and women in America tend overall to report feeling stress more than other demographic groups. But when it comes to the recent adverse economic conditions highlighted by Romney, the study offers this finding: “Stress increased little in response to the 2008-2009 economic downturn, except among middle-aged, college-educated white men with full-time employment.” (My emphasis.)

Those relatively well-off white men felt greater stress because they reasonably feared losing financial security and social status when they saw unforgiving economic conditions striking down their peers. It might be flattering to women voters to be told they are more finely attuned to such anxieties—it’s sort of a cliché, isn’t it?—but I suspect unease of that sort isn’t portioned out differently based on sex.