How Gender Discrimination Affects the Mental Health of Women

Mental health affects men and women equally, however, women tend to suffer more from mental health problems due to a combination of genetic and gender differences, as well as psychosocial stressors.  

There are conditions brought about by hormonal differences which make women vulnerable to certain types of medical illnesses that may lead to an onset of mental health issues. Disruption or abnormalities in biological factors, e.g., reproductive health, predisposes women to medical illnesses such as ovarian cancer and postnatal depression. These illnesses in turn may lead to depressive and anxiety disorders. In addition to biological factors, women are at risk because of gender differences and psychosocial stressors, e.g., sexual violence, divorce, and work stress. These stressors usually lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes.

Gender discrimination

Gender discrimination includes several experiences and structural inequalities, such as exposure to violence, women having lower status in society, not having independence over their lives, access to work opportunities, and the wage gap. These factors cause much strain and stress on women and may even impact their ability to access healthcare. Discrimination is felt both in the home and work environments. 

Sadly, women who defy the socio-cultural norms are frowned upon and usually face stigma, social exclusion and even violence. What compounds this issue is that women often face multiple minority statuses, which means that they face discrimination from many angles such that when combined, lead to greater stress and worse mental health outcomes.  


Improving the status of women

Where women lack autonomy and access to income, many other aspects of their lives and health will be outside of their control. A World Health Organisation study found that women’s subordinate social standing is a big predictor of depression. This status for women is reinforced in the workplace where women hold insecure and low-status jobs without autonomy. Women in these jobs experience a high level of negative life events, lack of housing, chronic stress from work activities, and lack of social support. 

On the other hand, women in leadership positions do not have an easy journey either. As they progress through the hierarchy, they become less visible and open to more scrutiny and criticism than men. 

In the home, gender roles further exacerbate the susceptibility of women to mental health by stressing passivity, submission, and dependence. Gains in dismantling gender discrimination and improving women’s status are likely to facilitate improvements in women’s mental health.   

Women experience multiple stressors at the same time or across their lifetime, creating a harmful cocktail of risk that results in poor health, as well as negative social and economic outcomes. Therefore, much effort is required to reduce gender discrimination in society by continuing to advocate for more equal representation of women in leadership positions, raising awareness of gender discrimination and its consequences, as well as having structures and environments that promote gender equality.  

Also read: Women Empowering Women

Silindokuhle is an Industrial/Organisational Psychologist registered with the HPCSA. She holds a Master’s degree from UKZN and runs an independent practice specialising in psychological assessments, training and wellbeing. 

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