Gender discrimination has a significant impact on mental and physical health worldwide. It can limit peoples’ access to healthcare, increase rates of ill health, and lower life expectancy.
Effects of Gender Discrimination on Mental Health
Gender discrimination is a source of stress, and like any other stressor, it can directly affect mental health.
Research from 2020 refers to a study in which women who reported experiencing gender discrimination in the past 12 months scored more highly than others on a depression screening tool.
Depending on the situation, facing discrimination can also result in anxiety and psychological trauma.
The authors of the research paper argue that discrimination plays a key role in the “gender gap” in rates of mental illness. Women experience higher rates of most mental health conditions, including:
- depression, which is twice as prevalent among women
- post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often called PTSD
- eating disorders, which are 4–10 times more prevalent in women
Women are also 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than men, although men are more likely to die by suicide.
For people assigned female at birth, biological factors may play a role in these differences. However, studies have found fewer gender differences in the rates of mental illness in societies with more equality among men and women. This suggests that inequity and discrimination play a major role in these disparities.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, gender inequality is also a risk factor for gender-based violence.
Thirty percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. The rate is higher, 47%, among trans people, and even higher among trans people of color and those who have done sex work, experienced homelessness, or have a current or past disability.
Experiencing any type of abuse or assault can lead to a mental health condition, as well as further complications that are traumatic in themselves. For example, if a person survives sexual assault, they may become pregnant, contract a sexually transmitted infection, or become excluded from their community.
Effects of Gender Discrimination on Physical Health
Gender discrimination has direct and indirect effects on physical health. These include:
Some research suggests that experiencing discrimination is correlated with worse physical health.
For example, a 2018 study found that women who experience discrimination at work are more likely to report ill physical health, and particularly women who have experienced sexual harassment.
Stress from any source can also contribute to many chronic conditions, including chronic pain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Less Healthy Living Conditions
Gender discrimination can also lead to a person having worse living conditions and less access to the things that they need to survive and thrive.
For example, in the United States, the gender pay gap means that women earn less than men overall — even when performing the same jobs. The pay gap is wider for women of color.
Women also have higher levels of student debt, lower savings in retirement, and higher rates of poverty, in comparison to men.
Not only does this cause more stress, it also reduces a person’s ability to afford fresh food, safe housing, and health insurance. This results in health inequity — avoidable and unfair differences in the health of marginalized groups, compared with privileged ones.
Injury and Death
Discrimination in the form of violence also directly impacts health. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is just one example of this.
FGM is unnecessary surgery to remove part or all of the genitalia of young females, who are typically younger than 15. Communities that practice FGM may believe that it will make girls more pure and suitable for marriage, and less likely to have extramarital sex.
People who survive the procedure can experience severe pain, bleeding, infections, and lifelong sexual health problems. Some die as a result of complications.
Effects of Gender Discrimination on Healthcare
Gender discrimination has a profound effect on healthcare, reducing the speed, accuracy, and quality of treatment. It affects diagnosis and treatment in many ways, including:
- Dismissal of symptoms: According to a 2018 review, doctors are more likely to view women’s chronic pain as psychological, exaggerated, or even made up, in comparison with men’s pain. This can leave people without support or treatment.
- Incorrect or delayed diagnoses: Prejudices about gender can result in people getting incorrect diagnoses or having to wait for years for any diagnosis. For example, a 2020 article found that it takes doctors 6.5 months longer to diagnose moderate hemophilia in females than in males, and 39 months longer to diagnose severe hemophilia. This is despite the fact that females are more likely to notice symptoms of bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia.
- Withholding care: Research from 2017 found that doctors routinely deny cis women access to birth control until they undergo annual pap smears. This form of manipulation is unethical and harmful, as it denies a person the ability to choose what happens to their body when.
- Obstetric violence: This involves forcing medical interventions onto a person who is giving birth, without their consent. The term also refers to verbal and physical abuse during labor. A 2019 study found that out of 2,016 observed births taking place in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, and Myanmar, 41.6% of women experienced obstetric violence or abuse.
Gender discrimination also affects healthcare workers, the majority of whom are women. For example, a 2019 report on the British Medical Association found that the organization engaged in widespread discrimination against women, including bullying and sexual harassment.
In the face of this discrimination, doctors who are women are just as capable as doctors who are men. A 2017 study, for example, found that patients of female surgeons were 4% less likely to die within 30 days of a procedure, compared with patients of male surgeons. Each patient in the study had undergone one of 25 types of surgery.