Let’s talk about the gender differences that really matter – in mental health

A sleepless woman in bed beside a sleeping man



Gender differences have been much in the news lately. It’s a topic that exerts a powerful attraction, beguiling scientists and lay people alike. Are men and women really so dissimilar that they may as well come from different planets? And where there are differences, what are the causes? Everyone, it seems, has a view.


Those of the opinion that the abilities – and thus the responsibilities – of women and men are innately different have been encouraged byresearch recently published by a team at the University of Pennsylvania. Asserting that “males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills”, the authors suggest that the explanation lies in the different ways in which the brains of men and women are wired. And as usual with such research, it’s assumed that differences discovered with a brain scan are innate.

These findings merely reiterate a wearyingly familiar stereotype: the one in which women can’t read maps or play football properly and men are somehow unable to hold a decent conversation or remember to do the washing up. The problems with the study have been skewered in these pages by Robin McKie. Suffice to say here that the conclusions drawn from the Pennsylvania data are flawed. But besides the lavishly uncritical coverage in much of the media, what is so galling is the fact that this kind of thing often obscures a more nuanced discussion of some absolutely critical gender differences.

For example, though we seem content to speculate over which sex is more adept at “multi-tasking” or “spatial awareness”, when it comes to mental health differences a baffling silence has prevailed. And yet our analysis of the international epidemiological data indicates that in any given year rates of psychological disorders are 20-40% higher in women than men, with the discrepancy especially marked for common problems such as anxiety, depression and insomnia.

It’s true that men have more problems with alcohol and drugs, but this doesn’t balance out the difference. And it’s also true that men are more likely to kill themselves, though in fact it is women who make more suicide attempts – the discrepancy arises from the fact that men typically use methods more likely to lead to death, such as firearms or hanging, while women overdose. And although it’s often said that the differences in overall rates of mental health problems are simply due to the fact that women are more likely to report such problems, there’s much more to it than that.

So, given the scale of the additional distress these figures imply for women, why aren’t we talking about it?

One reason may be the uncomfortable social and political questions these statistics raise. There is some preliminary research to indicate that biological factors may play a part, but at present the evidence – which we review in our book The Stressed Sex – is far stronger for the influence of life events. Being judged on one’s appearance and the degree to which one conforms to a largely unattainable physical “ideal”, shouldering the burden of responsibility for family, home and career, growing up in a society that routinely valorises masculinity while belittling femininity, and having to run the gauntlet of Everyday Sexism – all of these factors are likely to help lower women’s self-esteem, increase their level of stress and leave them vulnerable to mental health problems.

And that’s without taking account of the effects of sexual abuse, a trauma that’s frequently implicated in later psychological illness and one that as many as one in twenty girls are estimated to have suffered.

What are the chances of genuine sexual equality when even the editor of the Sunday Times is unable to persuade her bosses that featuring semi-nude women on page three of the Sun isn’t a great idea. In her words: “I think it’s demeaning to women … It is not good when you’re raising girls and they see women being objectified in that way.” Or when girls are deemed unsuited to study science at school? In one depressingly eloquent example of such sexism, researchers in the US found that science faculty staff judged a person’s aptitude for a laboratory manager job on the basis of their gender. A dummy application with a man’s name on the front fared much better than the same application with the name changed to that of a woman. “Female” candidates were deemed less competent – identical skills and experience notwithstanding. (This bias, incidentally, was shown by male and female recruiters alike.)

As such, it’s not a shock that three quarters of young women in the USbelieve that true equality in the workplace is still a long way off.

Perhaps more than ever, the effect of these pressures is evident at a very young age. A recent survey of 1,300 females aged 7 to 21, for instance, discovered that 80% of 11–16-year-olds say they shave or wax their legs, more than 60% wear make-up to school and 40% shave or wax their bikini line and/or wear a padded bra. Among 7–11 year-olds, almost two thirds paint their nails, 50% use make-up and a third wear high heels.

But conformity doesn’t seem to bring contentment: a third of those questioned were unhappy with their looks. For the over-16s, the figure rose to more than 50%. Many of the respondents reported that they’d experienced sexual harassment. And around one in four of the 16-18 age group admitted that they were unhappy – which fits with many other studies showing that it’s in the teenage years that girls overtake boys in rates of depression and anxiety.

For many young women, matters don’t improve as they reach their twenties. In one recent study more than 40% of women aged 16 to 30 reported struggling with loneliness, isolation, problematic relationships, lack of qualifications, debt, poverty and poor housing. Over a third felt that they couldn’t cope – a predicament that we know can easily develop into mental illness.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In an unequal society, why should we expect stress, pressure, and ultimately mental illness to be shared fairly between the sexes? Rather than pursuing spurious biological justifications for sexism, let’s focus our energies on tackling that inequality and ensuring that women’s mental health receives the attention, research and resources it merits.


Daniel Freeman is a professor of clinical psychology and a Medical Research Council Senior Clinical Fellow in the department of psychiatry, University of Oxford. Jason Freeman is a psychology writer. On Twitter they are @ProfDFreeman and @JasonFreeman100. They are the authors of The Stressed Sex: Uncovering the Truth about Men, Women, and Mental Health


FONTE: The Guardian

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