How Does Gender Inequality Affect Mental Health?

Author: LIN BING JIE, Intern @ ARKCC

Date: 31 March 2022

How Does Gender Inequality Affect Mental Health?

Gender is one of the critical determinants of mental health (World Health Organization [WHO], n.d.). Did you know that research found that women are more likely than men to suffer from depression, anxiety, and psychological distress? (Van Droogenbroeck et al., 2018; WHO, 2002)

Why is it so? Of the various underlying factors, genetic and biological factors such as hormonal changes play some role in the higher prevalence of depressive and anxiety disorders among women (WHO, 2002). However, there are also other gender-specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women, which include gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, lower income, low/subordinate social status than men, and responsibility for the care of others in a family (Basterrechea, 2017; WHO, n.d.). This is supported by another research which highlights that with greater levels of gender inequality, women suffer mentally more than men (Van Droogenbroeck et al, 2018).

Some might be curious, how about men? Men were found to have a higher prevalence rate for alcohol dependence and less likely to seek professional help when needed (WHO, n.d.). Despite that, the patterns of gender equality at the workplace were found to not be associated with men’s psychological distress. This is because in gender unequal situations women are more often disadvantaged whereas men have advantages that can be beneficial for health status (Elwér et al., 2013).

Did you know? According to the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, it will now take 135.6 years for the global gender gap to close on its current trajectory……

Gender norms and stereotypes

The inequalities between men and women are most visible when it comes to mental health. Starting from family, cultural and social norms towards gender roles expose all genders to gender-specific stressors. The specific nature of gender roles varies across cultures and time periods. Both women and men are expected to act, speak, dress, groom, and conduct ourselves based upon our assigned sex. To give an example, females are expected to be caring and nurturing whereas males are expected to be strong and bold. In addition to this, females are also expected to dress in typically feminine ways while males in masculine ways. This causes them to experience restricted gender roles and body dissatisfaction which increase their likelihood of experiencing psychological distress, eating disorder, or mental disorder (Rodríguez-Cano et al., 2006; Van Droogenbroeck et al, 2018). When individuals do not conform to the gender stereotypes, it can lead to discrimination and unequal treatment whether in the society, school, workplace, or even in the family (Gender Equality Law Centre, n.d.).

And extreme gender stereotypes are harmful because they do not allow people to fully express themselves and their emotions. To give an example, men are told to not cry since they were a little boy……Eventually, people suppress their emotions…

to avoid being judged, to avoid getting hurt, to avoid showing ‘weakness’, lack of confidence, etc.

Emotional suppression can become so much of a habit that it begins to happen unconsciously. Ultimately, it can lead to psychological stress, negatively affecting your self-esteem and perception towards yourself, and resulting in depression or anxiety (Raypole, 2020).

In fact, besides females, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals also bear the brunt of social and economic marginalization due to discrimination based on their gender identity or expression. These pervasive stigma attached to gender non-conformity and gender discrimination thereby resulted in them experiencing job loss, mistreatment and violence, or difficulty accessing the health care they need which eventually have adverse impacts on their quality of life and mental well-being throughout their lifespan (Bockting et al., 2016).

Gender discrimination in workplace

Let’s have a look at the career side. In 2022, women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races (uncontrolled gender pay gap). This gender pay gap indicates how wealth and power is gendered and the value that women have compared to men within the society (Payscale, n.d.).

Even though between 2016 and 2018, women’s employment increased by 5.0% in industries consisting of two-thirds men, women who are working in a male-dominated field tend to get lower pay than men. Since women in male-dominated workplaces typically face more discrimination and harassment, especially when they’re pregnant, they tend to actively avoid working in male-dominated fields which reinforce harmful stereotypes and create unfavorable environments that make it even more difficult for women to excel (Kolko & Miller, 2018). One thing noteworthy is that women were discovered to ruminate more - in other words, excessive and repetitive thinking of negative events - as a coping strategy than men to emotional strain. Because rumination enhances the effects of depressed mood on thinking, impairs effective problem solving, this indirectly causes them to be more vulnerable to experience depressive symptoms than men (Johnson & Whisman, 2013; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1999).

On the contrary, have you ever thought about gender discrimination men face in female-dominated field? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, the percentage of men working in the field of early childhood education is around 1.2% in the U.S. Most of the parents might hold negative attitudes towards male teachers in the field of early childhood education. And because of this, male teachers need to confront different situations where females are less likely to experience, such as hesitation or mistrust of parents related with men’s ability to take care of children and doubt of a possible sexual maltreatment (Tufan, 2018).

Gender harassment

Sexual harassment is nothing new, and it can affect everyone even though women are still being the most vulnerable populations to it. Sexual harassment against women and men, for example, include demeaning jokes or comments about women, using insults such as “slut” to refer to a female coworker or “pussy” to refer to a male coworker. Both women and men can and do experience all three forms of sexual harassment, but some other group of people face higher rates than others. For example, transgender people, women who are stereotypically masculine in behavior, appearance, or personality, and men who are perceived as “not man enough” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018). It is, above all, a manifestation of power relations. Women and the particular groups of people are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment are perhaps because they more often than men lack power, are in more vulnerable and insecure positions, lack self-confidence, or have been socialized to suffer in silence (Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, n.d.).

An experience with sexual harassment can either trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety that are new to the person; or it can exacerbate a previous condition that may have been controlled or resolved. Someone going through or dealing with the aftermath of sexual harassment may also exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially if the harassment leads to violence and/or assault (Spector, 2017).

So, how does gender equality benefit mental health?

Gender equality prevents violence against all genders, whether it is emotional violence or physical violence. Other than that, without gender discrimination and stereotypes, it can change the way communities view females and trangenders and the way they see themselves (Victorian Government, 2021); and allow males to be vulnerable, have freedom to express themselves, and seek help. Gender equality requires equal enjoyment by all genders of opportunities, resources and treatments. In consequence, a more healthy self-perception, self-esteem, and self-confidence may be built within all genders.

Supporting the benefits mentioned above, a study by King and colleagues (2018) suggested that gender equality is associated with better health outcomes of men and women. However, it was also highlighted in the study that more encouragement and support for men to assume more non-traditional roles are needed, to maximise the health gains by gender equality.

Take home message

Gender inequalities can affect anyone, and everyone is responsible for it. Gender equality is not conveying the message that females are better than males or they are entirely the same, but it is the differences that make all genders stronger. And by embracing the differences, everyone can achieve mental well-being and have higher life satisfaction. From equal opportunities to non-discrimination, all genders should be respected and valued.


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