A lot of us enjoy a drink at the end of a long day. This is more of a nightly must-have for some people.

Our research has shown that many Australian women view alcohol in a different way than we do. Many people have complex reasons for their relationship with alcohol.

We interviewed women from different social classes in South Australia. The nature of a women's relationship with alcohol was different depending on their social class.

The problem for public health lies in the circumstances that shape women's lives and lead to a relationship with alcohol.

The public health messaging around alcohol harm reduction needs to be more tailored to women. The message that hits home for middle-class women won't appeal to working class women.

Key themes emerged from our research

Drinking alcohol was seen as reducing loneliness by all women we spoke to. They had a relationship with alcohol even though they only drank alcohol.

There are a lot of competing responsibilities for women. Many people said they felt invisible and unacknowledged.

A middle-class woman said alcohol could be boring. Another person said something.

[I drink] just on my own; doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to be sociable and I don’t necessarily drink when I’m out […] alcohol has always played a fairly large role.

Women with the most privilege say they drink to celebrate their achievements and enjoy life within social networks.

Women with the most privilege say they drink to celebrate their achievements and enjoy life within social networks. Photograph: Lev Dolgachov/Alamy

In the absence of anything else, alcohol can be used as a stand-in support for working-class women. One woman said it was true.

Loneliness is definitely a factor for me, and I think it is for a lot of women. And I think once you start having a drink, it becomes a habitual […] I’d like to see more done in terms of the loneliness because I think it is a real thing.

Another woman said something.

I didn’t have anything – so in my life I have actually always had, like, a glass of wine.

Women with the most privilege drink to celebrate their achievements and enjoy their social networks. Middle-class women drink alcohol because they feel they deserve a reward, or because they want to relax. One person put it this way.

It seems to be that ladies our age, all the ones I hang out with, are exactly the same as me. They say, “Oh well, wine o’clock.” […] I don’t need it, I don’t have to have a drink. I just choose to.

Many people said drinking was normal or expected of them. A middle-class woman said that drinking is what she should do.

Women with less privilege drink alcohol to make difficult and isolated lives more liveable. One person put it this way.

It provides relief, even if for a couple of hours, to take that away, thinking, “Where the hell am I going to come up with A$1,000 from?” OK, let me have a drink. Calm down. Think of this. To me, to remove that from women, you’re actually removing a part of their autonomy.

Many working-class women we talked to thought of alcohol as a reliable friend that allowed them to deal with difficult and sometimes intolerable lives. One person commented.

How is that not a positive? […] I’m not going to cut something out that enhances my life so much.

It can be difficult to break up with alcohol because of the many reasons women drink.

Middle-class women wanted to change their drinking habits and take steps to moderate their drinking. Many working-class women felt that alcohol was the only way to cope with life's difficulties, and that they couldn't manage their consumption.

Alcohol served as a way to regain control for some working-class women.

Research shows society needs to pay more attention to the broader systemic issues underpinning women’s drinking.

Research shows society needs to pay more attention to the broader systemic issues underpinning women’s drinking. Photograph: Brian Jackson/Alamy

The structural reasons why women drink in the first place are not addressed in the public health message.

If alcohol were reduced, the roles alcohol plays in women's lives would need to be changed. The general lack of support for women during midlife is one of the broader issues underpinning women's drinking. For working-class women, this is especially true.

Getting the support we need to reduce drinking can use a lot of resources. Many working-class women would lose what they see as an important mechanism for dealing with stress.

Reducing alcohol is a reasonable and feasible option for all women.

  • A researcher at Torrens University Australia is named Belinda Lunnay. There is a PhD candidate at the university. The professor of public health is Paul Ward. The article was first published in the Conversation.