Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex (i.e., the state of being male, female, or an intersex variation), sex-based social structures (i.e., gender roles), or gender identity. Traditionally, people who identify as men or women or use masculine or feminine gender pronouns are using a system of gender binary whereas those who exist outside these groups fall under the umbrella terms non-binary or genderqueer.
Sexologist John Money introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955. Before his work, it was uncommon to use the word gender to refer to anything but grammatical categories. However, Money’s meaning of the word did not become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced the concept of a distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender. Today, the distinction is followed in some contexts, especially the social sciences and documents written by the World Health Organization (WHO).
In other contexts, including some areas of the social sciences, gender includes sex or replaces it. For instance, in non-human animal research, gender is commonly used to refer to the biological sex of the animals. This change in the meaning of gender can be traced to the 1980s. In 1993, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started to use gender instead of sex. Later, in 2011, the FDA reversed its position and began using sex as the biological classification and gender as “a person’s self representation as male or female, or how that person is responded to by social institutions based on the individual’s gender presentation.”
The social sciences have a branch devoted to gender studies. Other sciences, such as sexology and neuroscience, are also interested in the subject. The social sciences sometimes approach gender as a social construct, and gender studies particularly do, while research in the natural sciences investigates whether biological differences in males and females influence the development of gender in humans; both inform debate about how far biological differences influence the formation of gender identity. In some English literature, there is also a trichotomy between biological sex, psychological gender, and social gender role. This framework first appeared in a feminist paper on transsexualism in 1978.
Gender differences have been much in the news lately. It’s a topic that exerts a powerful attraction, beguiling scientists and lay people alike.
Those of the opinion that the abilities – and thus the responsibilities – of women and men are innately different have been encouraged. Asserting that “males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills”, 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.
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.)
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.