Educated UK women have worst alcohol problem in West

Thanks to the Sober Womens Awareness Network (SWAN) group on Facebook for linking these articles.  It was reported on the BBC, in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and the alarmist headline comes courtesy of the Daily Wail.  In fact as the week went on it was picked up by every national newspaper and all were writing about a report out last week that looked at the rate of heavy drinking in the middle class female professional world and how educated UK women  have the worst alcohol problem in Western society.  It also featured a picture and piece by Lucy Rocca from the excellent sober online community Soberistas

Shoot for Femail featuring Lucy Rocca for a feature on recovering from alcoholism and being middle class.
Shoot for Femail featuring Lucy Rocca for a feature on recovering from alcoholism and being middle class.

Educated British women head a global league table for alcohol abuse, a shocking report revealed last night.  It said growing numbers of professional women are drinking at dangerous levels to keep up with men and further their careers.  Many start heavy boozing when young and continue the habit into middle age, downing vast quantities at home, often on their own.

In what has become the ‘dark side of equality’, their drinking habits now resemble those of men, according to the study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.  One in five woman graduates regularly drink ‘hazardously’ compared with one in ten for those with lower levels of education.  Hazardous is defined as consuming at least twice the safe limit of 14 units a week for women and 21 units for men.  A unit is roughly half a glass of wine or half a pint of beer. ‘Women are adopting men’s drinking habits and they are not healthy,’ said Mark Pearson of the OECD.  ‘As women have moved into the labour market they have adapted to the male culture. Jobs where you can earn more are more likely to be jobs that have a lot networking. It’s the dark side of equality.  ‘They aren’t being frogmarched by their bosses but there are social pressures to go out and to network.’

The study, the OECD’s first major report on harmful alcohol abuse, also found that:

  • Four in five drinkers would live longer if they cut back by just half a glass of wine a week;
  • Two thirds of alcohol in the UK is drunk by just 20 per cent of adults
  • Girls have caught up with boys and are now drinking in their early teens, with 41 per cent of 15-year-old girls having been drunk. 

The report compared the drinking habits of men and women from 34 Western countries through analysing social surveys.  The UK had the highest percentage of educated women drinking hazardously. British men were tied for top with Germany.  It found that in many countries including the UK there was a direct link between whether someone drank hazardously and the number of years they had spent in education.

According to the OECD study, women now drink regularly with male colleagues in the pub after work. Not only has it become more socially acceptable, many feel under pressure to drink to boost their career prospects.  And with many more women delaying motherhood, or choosing not to have children at all, they are continuing this lifestyle well into their 30s, 40s and beyond.

The report’s authors called on the Government to bring in tough measures to tackle excessive drinking, such as mandatory calorie labelling which could be particularly effective for women.  Katherine Brown, of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: ‘This report shows the UK has a worrying report card on alcohol compared with other high-income countries.  Of particular concern is the stark increase in women drinking at hazardous levels, including teenage girls, who appear to have overtaken the teenage boys in rates of drunkenness.

There are a number of reasons why women are drinking so much more today, but an important factor is the aggressive marketing tactics employed by the drinks industry to attract female consumers.  ‘We’ve seen a huge surge in female-oriented sweet, fizzy, pink drinks, often linked to sponsorship deals with cosmetic brands, women’s daytime TV shows and sometimes even breast cancer awareness campaigns.’

The OECD report said that the highest proportion of hazardous drinkers was among the 45 to 64 age group, and teenage girls were now drinking just as much as boys.  It concluded: ‘Women with higher education may have better-paid jobs involving higher degrees of responsibility and thus may drink more heavily because they have more stress as well as more chances to go out drinking with male colleagues with higher limits of drinking.

‘More years spent in education, improved labour market prospects, increased opportunities for socialisation, delayed pregnancies and family ties, are all part of women’s changing lifestyles, in which alcohol drinking, sometimes including heavy drinking, has easily found a place. Much of it is done at home, away from public view.’  Last year a report warned that liver disease deaths were up 500 per cent in 30 years, fuelled by excessive drinking.

I find it interesting that the OECD identify that the highest proportion of harazardous drinking is amongst the 45-64 age group.  And what I’m noticing is that it is this group that is waking up to the issue and doing something about it.  I myself would have been in that demographic if I hadn’t stopped drinking 6 weeks before my 45 birthday and I know I’m not the only sober blogger who is a mid forties, middle class professional.  If you are reading this and happy to share your age, perceived social class and whether you are a professional (and you can do so anonymously) we can do our own straw poll 🙂

14 thoughts on “Educated UK women have worst alcohol problem in West

  1. Hiya

    This is very interesting. I am 37 and I guess I tick the other boxes too.
    We are definitely targeted by the alcohol industry – I remember when I very first tried to get sober I couldn’t escape the alcohol adverts, everywhere! Also, people on TV seem to drink all the time – celebrations, wind down, stress, death – any situation needs a glass of something!
    It’s not until I stopped drinking that i realise how many people didn’t live a completely alcohol soaked life. Just the people I spent time with and my family!! Doh

    1. Yep Claire the advertising and marketing is very powerful and pervasive. It normalises abnormal amounts of drinking so hardly surprising we think that everyone drinks all the time! 🙂 xx

  2. Agree with everything you have said Claire x
    I am 46 years, went on to higher education but don’t have a degree. Not sure what class that makes me xx

  3. Not sure what my perceived social class would be—as most of the time I’m not very classy 😀 49 years old, 2 year Associate Degree, staff accountant for a private company. I wonder if the results of this study, like many others, are only as good as the honesty of those polled or questioned? Perhaps “professional” women are more likely to be honest about their drinking habits? I hope that doesn’t sound offensive, it’s just a thought? xx

    1. I’m not very classy either Lori 😉 Maybe you’re right though about honesty and self-reporting! xx

  4. I know I’m gonna get a lot of flack for saying this, but what if all this drinking isn’t just to keep up with the guys?

    For millions of years, humans have pair-bonded, had children together, and raised them in close kinship with others. Professional, educated women, who often choose not to become mothers, are distancing themselves from this biological and cultural heritage. And at least in my experience, the high-powered women who do choose to become parents often treat their children more as projects to be managed than as people to be nurtured.

    So I wonder if at least some of these women are drinking heavily to cover up a nagging feeling that something deep and important is missing in their otherwise successful lives.

    1. No flack from me SC. It’s a valid opinion and for some women there is probably some truth in what you say 🙂

  5. I started with Happy Hours, a way to socialize after work.
    I just think I drank more later in my career because the demands made teaching nutty, and I didn’t know how to cope!
    (As well as made me nutty!)
    I think there are many factors, but the main ones are in the article.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Wendy and I too drank more to cope with my professional career choice! xx

  6. I saw an equivalent report in a Sunday paper which left me fuming… can’t link as Sunday TImes is behind paywall but Eleanor Mills’ premise was ‘don’t hate mums who need a drop of red before bed’ :

    ‘rather than seeing all this as ‘the dark side of equality maybe we should just accept that as women try to do it all and have the freedoms of men, they also become stressed like men. They, like men for centuries, are seeking release in the bottle. ‘

    ‘In our culture booze is the accepted face of relaxation and letting off steam, and while it isn’t good for their health (women’s bodies metabolise alcohol more slowly than men’s, so we shouldn’t drink as much) these are grown up women who for the most part aren’t hurting anyone except themselves.’

    well I just don’t know where to start with that! in the first place many things that were once acceptable in our society are not considered so today – slavery, or child chimney sweeps, for example. and secondly no harm to anyone but themselves – just for starters how about the as many as 7,000 children* born in this country EVERY YEAR with symptoms of damage caused by alcohol consumed by their ‘grown-up’ mothers?

    if we look to where this movement is coming from it’s interesting to see the marketing of alcohol in emerging markets for women’s alcohol consumption such as those in India, where the market for wine has grown by nearly 25% in the last 5 years, driven primarily by a 28.7% increase in consumption among women – according to this article * trigger warning for images of wine *


    1. Hey Prim. Firstly Eleanor Mills no one’s hating anyone! Actually we want to help not hate 😉 As for the rest of her quoted words – I agree with you, where to start? As for targeted marketing practices of the industry I can’t even respond to that without imploding on this side of the screen!! 🙁

  7. Hmm – 49 when I stopped a year ago, graduate degree and a professional. Also from UK until emigrated to Canada. I am not surprised with this finding. I still believe that many people drink to cope with underlying feelings – often due to childhood experiences. However, we also live in societies saturated by drink where women have been targeted as a growing market for years. I do remember feeling that I was as good as any man and why shouldn’t I go the pub and drink like they do. This continued for years and as the jobs became more demanding and stressful and juggling family was added to the mix drinking at home became the safety valve (I thought). Added to which, alcohol is a highly addictive, socially sanctioned substance that is ubiquitous – no surprise at all so many women end up with alcohol problems. What is hopeful is that so many are recognizing and doing something about it.

    1. Thanks Manda for sharing your experience. There are many of us out here choosing to do something about it 🙂

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