Today is International Women’s Day, a day which serves as a call to action for achieving gender equality around the world.
Gender equality and mental health are fundamentally linked. For women, whenever equality of opportunity, rights or resources are limited there is a cost to mental health also. When it comes to improving women’s mental health, meaningful change starts with a more equal society.
10 ways gender equality matters to mental health
1. Many risk factors for mental health difficulties are experienced more frequently by women. For example, we know that around the world poverty and disadvantage disproportionately affect women and that this has a resulting impact on wellbeing.
2. Income is another risk factor associated with mental health difficulties. Internationally, a gender ‘pay gap’ exists, and in Ireland income inequalities have recently widened rather than narrowed – even where women are more qualified!
3. Income inequality continues into later life too, where a ‘pension gap’ leaves older women, who also suffer from higher rates of depression and dementia than their male peers, more likely to live in poverty than men.
4. Worldwide, women assume an unequal burden of care and household responsibilities . This role imbalance can lead to high levels of stress and less time to enjoy balanced lifestyle habits which can support mental wellbeing .
5. Social status has been identified as a factor associated with mental health difficulties, and particularly depression which is markedly more common amongst women. Women work in more lower paid jobs, and are under-represented in political and leadership roles and in cultural arenas.
6. Women are more likely to be affected by trauma and stressful events which can severely impact mental health. Gender-based violence and sexual trauma can have especially serious mental health consequences, for example post-traumatic stress disorder which is experienced in higher levels by women.
7. Timely access to support when it’s needed is crucial. Women at the greatest risk of developing mental health difficulties however may also face more difficulty getting the help they need when and where they need it – for example, female refugees or women in abusive relationships.
8. Stigma has been shown to be a barrier to accessing timely mental health care. Women can face additional stigma, for example fears that their parenting abilities may be unfairly judged.
9. A gender bias can also exist in mental health diagnosis and treatment, with research showing that women are more at risk of being either under- or over-treated for their mental health needs.
10. Both men and women can face stereotyped ideas about gender roles which can influence how mental health difficulties are perceived. For women, reducing stigma and increasing awareness about depression during and after pregnancy, and eating disorders, is especially important.
In this time of international political upheaval, we are learning that we cannot take for granted any progress that has been made in matters of equality, whether gender equality or otherwise. Bold actions are not only necessary to achieve a more gender equal world, they are necessary for a mentally healthier world.
World Health Organisation (2014) Social Determinants of Mental Health.
Hilliard, M. (2017) Gender pay gap in Ireland has widened over the last five years, Irish Times, 21 February.
National Women’s Council of Ireland (2009) Who Cares? Challenging the myths about gender and care in Ireland. NWCI: Dublin.
OECD Development Centre (2015) Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes
National Women’s Council (2009) Who Cares? Challenging the myths about gender and care in Ireland. NWCI: Dublin.
World Health Organisation (2017) Gender and Women’s Mental Health.
The Women’s Health Council (2004) Women’s Mental Health: Promoting a Gendered Approach to Policy and Service Provision.