Women's Health and Perceptions of Gender

For many pressing health issues, including HIV/AIDS, cancer (in particular lung cancer), and suicide completion, women have lower rates than men. Women are the minority at birth, but the number of women (in the national surveys) far surpass men in survival rates across the lifespan, with a broad gender difference easily noticed when visiting my grandfather’s retirement community. Given that for most problems, most obviously genetic disorders, women come out as “more fit” from a survival perspective, it is somewhat surprising to be termed “the weaker sex.” Part of women’s collective higher rate of survival is due to biological factors (having two X chromosomes), but also social or environmental factors (help seeking behavior for health issues and increased social support seeking).

Although my original training in psychology came from a primarily social psychology perspective, I have found that evolutionary perspectives on current human behavior may provide a viewpoint worthy of consideration. Perhaps because women are vitally important to the care of offspring based on basic biology (i.e., breastfeeding), women have developed an increased awareness of the need to maintain their health and well-being in ways that are less frequent or apparent in men. Men’s increased rates of risk-taking and fatal impulsive behavior compared to women (Byrnes, Miller, & Schafer, 1999) also drive apparent sex differences in many health outcomes. These findings suggest that the often stated phrase that women are the weaker sex lacks sufficient evidence.

In fact, in many ways women may be stronger, yet I hesitate to bestow the label of “weak” to any group. Discussions regarding women’s strength and relative weaknesses requires nuance not often considered in everyday thinking. When I emphatically state that I will be capable of walking myself down an aisle (if there is even an aisle at all) when my aunts suggest future wedding plans, I see myself fighting against old gender stereotypes. Yet I also realize that upper body strength is something that men are more likely to develop, and appreciate when a man offers to help me place my heavy roller-bag in an overhead bin. I wonder how to embrace the obvious strengths of my gender while being reasonable about gender differences.

I would love to eliminate those traditions that emphasize women as weak and vulnerable members of society that need taken care of, while still recognizing than women are the more often caregivers for others, and experience increased levels of stress and burden of taking on others’ pain as their own. As a modern feminist, how does one acknowledge the vulnerability experience by women to a greater extent (e.g., domestic violence, sexual abuse), but also praise strength and hardiness found often in this group? My tendency has been to downplay sex/gender differences, and blame socialization for perceived behavioral differences. In reality, as always, things are much more complex. The interaction between basic biology and socialization practices are a growing frontier in psychological science (though typically framed as gene x environment interactions). My immediate hope is that researchers interested in health-related outcomes can continue to include sex as a moderator and investigate mechanisms for any sex differences found. A broader hope is that women’s perceived role as the “weaker” sex can change.