Gender gaps in health

| 15/03/2013

From birth to death, human beings experience a wide range of emotional, psychological and physical experiences that shape our lives and inevitably can affect the state of our health and well-being. These experiences and our reactions to them can be quite different depending on whether you are a boy or a girl, or a woman or man.

Males and females are socialised by parents, caregivers, peers, intimate partners, spouses, schools, religious institutions and the media to have certain stereotypical emotions, perceptions, and behaviours. These are known as our gender roles, and they often influence the way each sex deals with emotions, forms thoughts and ultimately how we behave and interact with one another.

Gender Roles and Behaviours

For males in the Western world, traditional gender roles typically promote and expect boys and men to be active, aggressive, and express anger, but not to openly display sadness. We have all heard our boy children being scolded and told messages “don’t cry” or “don’t be a sissy” when they injure themselves, and Caymanian seafarers can relate to coming of age in an era of “wooden ships and iron men.” These traditional male gender roles are considered masculine, and when these behaviours are taken to the extreme, they may be used to attain goals without engaging in the process of social interactions (e.g. bullying, violent crimes, involvement in gangs, etc.).

Conversely, traditional feminine gender roles encourage girls and women to be passive and yield to the needs of others and authority (e.g. “be seen and not heard”, provide caregiving for children and elderly, volunteer to assist with community needs). Girls and women are allowed to express sadness, but it is frowned upon if anger or aggressiveness is openly expressed by females.

Additionally, when females assert themselves in a positive manner to look out for their own needs, this is often perceived negatively by others and labels or “who does she think she is” looks are doled out.

These traditional expectations of how males and females are supposed to behave and react to situations and problems are in opposition, creating very rigid gender roles that influence how males and females are expected to live their lives. Traditional attitudes about gender roles can leave persons feeling confined to their ascribed ‘gender box’, and when they are not allowed the opportunity to experience and display the entire range of human emotions and behaviours, there can be negative effects to their health and well-being.

Traditional Gender Roles and Health 

Research from the United States suggests that gender role socialisation influences a person’s vulnerability to the level of stress and distress experienced as a result of life experiences and problems and the need to fulfill gender role expectations. Traditional feminine gender role attitudes have been linked to turning distress inward and internalising problem behaviors in females. Specifically, women report higher levels than men of psychological distress, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and somatic complaints.

In the Cayman Islands, the 2010 Census of Population and Housing revealed that our women are similarly internalising this distress. The prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases like asthma and diabetes was higher among females and this gender gap was widest in regards to high blood pressure. Among females, 106 of every 1,000 reported having high blood pressure compared to 71 of every 1,000 males.

For males, traditional masculine gender roles encourage boys and men to deal with issues by externalising problem behaviours. Impulsivity, sensation seeking, risk-taking and other anti-social behaviours have different and often times more deadly health consequences, including accidents, injuries and early death.

It is these limited ways of dealing with problems that lead to different negative effects on health when females internalise problem behaviours and males externalise problem behaviours.

Seeking Assistance for Health and Well-being

The 2010 Census data did reveal positive news in regards to gender and health. There was virtually no gender disparity regardingaccess to health insurance between men and women overall. It is only when comparing Caymanians and non-Caymanians that minimal gaps are evident. Caymanian females were more likely than Caymanian males to have health insurance, and conversely, non-Caymanian males were more likely to have health insurance than non-Caymanian females.

While males and females in the Cayman Islands seem to have equitable access to health services, gender roles often influence whether or not they access services or seek preventative care for physical and mental health matters.

More flexible gender roles need to be encouraged which allow girls and women to express themselves, look after the needs of others without sacrificing their own health and well-being, and seek solutions to their problems instead of internalising them. Boys and men need to hear that is okay to express sadness and to deal with anger in a healthy manner instead of expressing it through violence, risk taking or anti-social behaviour. Males also need to be encouraged to take preventative physical and mental health measures instead of subscribing to the ideology that seeking assistance makes them less masculine.

When all individuals are taught and allowed to experience the full range of human emotions in a healthy manner – without either internalising or externalising their problems – then we will close the current gender gaps in health status and experience a healthier society overall.

Category: Viewpoint

Comments (3)

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  1. Slowpoke says:

    Speaking of gibberish… Your word salad has nothing to do with the theme of this article.  It may be time to reduce your use of Testosterone.

  2. Reality Check says:

    More gibberish.  Someone needs to explain to this person that we will never make men and women exactly the same.  We have different chemicals in our bodies that greatly affect how we behave and it is natural for men and women to exhibit different behaviours.  That difference is part of the functionof how the mate selection process operates in human.

    • Anonymous says:

      The problem is not the mental or physical difference between men and women, but they the way they are treated.

      The problem lies in our religion. The moment you accept that jesus and god are men, and adam was created as god's image and eva came from a rib of adam, THEN there is unfortunately no solution.

      Yes, nature has created a pecific mate selection process, but we are humans and not animals (were it works fine). We have a brain and can "fix" natures mistakes.