Why are women more prone to mental health problems than men? Social factors play a big role

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 by
research 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
US believe 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.