How Gender Discrimination and Inequality Affect Women’s Mental Health
Gender discrimination has been around for centuries. Such gender mainstreaming campaigns and social movements as #MeToo, #TimesUp, #SayHerName, HeForShe, and the Women’s March drew attention to the broad spectrum of gender discrimination, gender inequality, and gender-related violence in the US and worldwide.
They show that today women are still fighting for equality and equity, their rights, needs, fairness, and the freedom to be a woman without any imposed norms or restrictions.
Gender discrimination (or sex discrimination) translates into unequal treatment, distinction, exclusion, or restriction of people based on their gender and/or sex. It can happen to anyone in any social domain: workplace, sports, relationships, family, education, healthcare, religion, media, or politics. Stereotypes, biases, and “rules” regarding how women and men should look and behave follow us from early childhood.
Gender discrimination happens to men and women from people of any gender or sex. However, discrimination against women is more common. Gender inequality is one of the major problems that damage women’s mental health. Here’s more on its realities and negative effects, and some tips on what you can do to start healing and recovering emotionally.
The uncomfortable truth about gender inequality
A lot of people believe that women have already gained all the rights they need, and feminism as a movement is unnecessary or even harmful. We have Title IX and state laws against gender discrimination, they say.
The truth is that in no country have women achieved equality. Discrimination is still prevalent in all countries worldwide, including the US.
Here are some uncomfortable and striking facts about gender inequality:
- The World Economic Forum projects that it will take 158 years for North America to reach gender equality and 170 years for the whole world.
- In the US, a woman earns 81 cents for every dollar earned by a man for the same work.
- Women make up only 27% of Congress.
- Nearly 20% of the UK women felt discriminated based on their gender in the previous year.
- Men are promoted at 30% higher rates than women during the early career stages.
- 1 in 3 women in the US experience contact sexual assault in their lifetime.
- In 2019, up to 4 women were killed by an intimate partner each day.
Social movements have shone a light on gender inequality, stereotyping, sexism, prejudice, and violence and showed that discrimination manifests in many different forms — from insidious and subtle to blatant and violent. Moreover, more subtle forms are so ingrained in society that they may be hard to spot.
Just look at some examples of gender-based stereotypes, unfair judgments, and expectations you face in everyday life:
- “Girls are good at art but boys are better at math.”
- “Women are poor drivers.”
- “You’re crying like a girl.”
- “Dinosaur toys are for boys. Girls should play with dolls.”
- “As a woman, you have to be a good mother.”
- “You’re expected to slog in the kitchen, and you’re the only one responsible for serving the guests.”
- “As a girl, you must behave well and be docile.”
- “You look “dirty” — shave your legs.”
- “A woman must stay in a marriage, but a man is free to walk their way.”
- “Are you asexual? You just need to stop hating men!”
Although some people don’t personally experience gender-based abuse and discrimination, it does exist. Remember: whatever form gender discrimination takes, it’s illegal. And it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful.
Get immediate help if you need it
Support hotlines list:
- Suicide Prevention — Hotline: 800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line — Text: 741741
- Sexual Assault — Hotline: 800-656-4673
- Domestic Violence — Hotline: 800-799-7233
How gender discrimination is fueling mental health problems in women
Gender and sex discrimination is strongly associated with poor mental health. It plays a key role in mental well-being decline and the developing mental illnesses in women and gender-diverse people. For example, depression is twice as prevalent among women as men.
Let’s explore how and why gender inequality fuels mental health problems in women, both short- and long-term.
It triggers development of mental health conditions or worsening the symptoms
Gender inequality is a strong driver of anxiety and depression. Unequal access to education and healthcare, sexist remarks, restrictions of freedom and mobility, power inequality, namecalling, sexual harassment, emotional abuse, and domestic violence — any form of discrimination and gender-based violence is a source of tremendous mental and emotional distress.
Discrimination causes intense emotions and feelings of fear, shame, panic, frustration, sadness, and anger. It also deprives people of feelings of safety and control. Thus many women keep avoiding certain locations or situations where they feel vulnerable “because of their gender.”
A 2020 research revealed that women who experienced gender discrimination in the past year exhibited depressive symptoms and were at increased risks for developing a condition. This is especially true for those who were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as children or adults. There’s also evidence that pregnancy discrimination increases levels of postpartum depressive symptoms for mothers.
Additionally, gender inequality is one of the main risk factors for developing eating disorders and substance use disorders.
It causes distorted self-concept and sense of sexuality
Rigid gender norms and roles and common stereotypes of femininity affect people’s sense of self from a young age. Stopping women from working or driving, managing their money, limiting their lives to “womanish” roles of good wives and happy mothers harm their self-concept.
As a result, people feel that they don’t have control over their lives and bodies, and that they have no right to deviate from the established norms. In this case, they have trouble living true to themselves and being in connection with their needs and desires.
Discrimination can shut you out when you’re trying to answer the “Who am I?” question.
Also, the devaluation of femininity and gender diversity provides space for harmful behaviors that adversely impact women’s self-esteem and self-image:
- Mansplaining (explaining something to someone in a condescending tone, even when they have more expertise on the problem)
- Body shaming and setting appearance standards or restrictions (“You have to work out and be fit,” “Put off this short dress — you’re flaunting your beauty,” “Real girls don’t wear short hair.”)
- Overlooking human emotions and feelings or dividing them into feminine and masculine
- Exposure to harmful messages, hostile remarks, or insults in the media and real life
- Sexist jokes and assumptions of intellectual and physical inferiority of women
- A sexualized depiction of women and objectification (when a person is treated as an object with an external value, regardless of their personality and abilities)
- Intentionally referring a person to a gender they don’t identify with or deadnaming
This ultimately affects people’s body image, self-esteem, and self-worth. And this doesn’t allow them to reflect their real power, personality, potential, and diversity.
It leads to self-blame and toxic shame
Women tend to blame themselves for discrimination and problems they experience. Self-blame opens doors to toxic (internalized) shame, guilt, and self-disgust. It can make you feel “small”, worthless, and hopeless.
One of the reasons for this is the lack of awareness that:
- Any discrimination isn’t okay
- It’s a matter of a larger problem in society rather than an isolated incident because of you. In other words, unfortunately, it happens everywhere, and you’re not to blame. It takes a lot of courage and strength to overpower the focus on self-blame, heal, and start seeing mistreatment a bit wider.
Also, victim-blaming creates a climate of intimidation. It plays a crucial role in preventing victims from speaking up and coping with what they’re going through.
It’s the cause of burnout
Today, women shoulder more of the caregiving responsibilities and spend over twice as much time on housework as men because of gender roles. This is also the case for couples with both partners working full-time.
Moreover, even if a woman is highly-paid, they don’t do less housework. This can be explained by the sense of guilt many women experience when they don’t “fully follow” the traditional role functions. It results in jumping over their heads, juggling tasks, and overburdening by workload.
Besides, trying to fit in the expectations of a superwoman leaves less time for the rest. Even when both genders have almost equal amounts of free time, men have more uninterrupted rest compared to women. In addition to the statistics, working mothers get less sleep compared to working male partners.
All these factors affect healthy work-life balance and accumulate overwhelming stress that eventually results in burnout.
It demotivates and affects career choices
According to a survey, 42% of US working women faced workplace gender discrimination. Usually, they’re treated as less competent than male coworkers and suffer from a gender pay gap while performing the same job. Apart from it, many report sexual harassment, sexist remarks, ostracism, bullying, devaluation of their skills or capabilities, and unfair job rejection.
Many workers can’t access favorable conditions to juggle parenting or caregiving responsibilities with their professional activity. They often feel like they have to choose between their career and personal life. And it’s one of the reasons why women are less likely to pursue higher-paying careers. They’re especially underrepresented in high-paying fields such as science, business, and law.
Moreover, gender discrimination in the workplace can be paired with discrimination based on race, physical abilities, sexuality, ethnicity, age, religion, or other factors. So, a woman of color may experience inequity differently from a white female co-worker.
As a result, discrimination in the workplace can lead to:
- A reduced sense of belonging
- Loss of motivation
- Giving up a career for mental health reasons
- Intense stress
- Self-doubt and low confidence
- Unhealthy self-esteem
- Reduced job satisfaction
- Feelings of loneliness and alienation
- Decreased productivity
- Withdrawal and isolation from coworkers
- Disappointment in corporate culture
- Occurrence of imposter syndrome
It results in trauma and sexuality problems
Violence against women as one of the extreme forms of inequality is a major public health problem and a violation of human rights. According to the WHO, about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. This rate is higher among trans people.
Survivors of violence can experience severe physical and psychological effects for a long time. Such traumatic experiences have a damaging impact on people’s sex life and sexuality, on how they build relationships, and how they rule their lives.
Women are more likely to experience childhood neglect, violent acts against sexuality and sexual integrity (such as female genital mutilation), forced prostitution, sex trafficking, incest, obligatory inspection for virginity, intimate partner abuse, child marriage, and other violent, discrimination-based actions that are especially common among the cultures of honor and shame.
Sex discrimination, as any type of discrimination, is also a traumatic experience. And direct or indirect exposure to it can trigger trauma or cause trauma spectrum disorders. Exposure to unfair treatment can also worsen the symptoms of PTSD. According to the research, the discriminatory stress that woman veterans with PTSD face significantly increases the severity of their condition.
It increases the risk of suicide
Gender discrimination can kill. The WHO found that suicide was the leading cause of death for women aged 15 to 19. Most often, it was the result of anxiety and depression developed after facing gender-based discrimination and violence.
If you’re or someone in your family or community may be at risk for suicide, contact your healthcare provider, local mental health authority, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889).
What can I do?
For sure, forging equity and equality, accelerating gender parity, and providing fair opportunities for anyone to live fulfilling lives greatly depends on policy-makers and law enforcement. Additionally, some gender mainstreaming movements drive important social changes and make a positive difference in women’s lives worldwide.
But if you or someone you know fall victim to gender-based discrimination, there are some actions you can do to start moving toward emotional healing:
- Keep in mind that it’s not your fault and you don’t deserve it
- Prioritize your safety
- Take time away from traumatic experiences and employ self-care practices
- Don’t be afraid to take legal action and get professional support from law authorities. Remember that gender discrimination is illegal
- Share household chores and childcare equally
- Watch for signs of abuse and violence
- Avoid people who exhibit or support discrimination
- Practice compassion and patience with yourself as you heal
- Reach out to communities of survivors to get emotional and/or financial support, speak up if you can, and move forward together
- Improve assertiveness skills to be able to state and defend your right to equal treatment
- Partake in anti-discrimination campaigns to raise awareness against bias and violence
- Get empowered by inspiring and influential figures who combat gender bias
- Receive support from your friends, family members, or community
Use these resources to get informed and receive help
- ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)
- Equal Rights Advocates
- National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Get empowered with the help of a therapist
Every woman responds and copes with gender discrimination differently. But there are still many barriers rooted in stigma, fear, and bias that prevent them from getting the quality care they need. The safety and privacy of online therapy help break these barriers.
Calmerry is here to empower women and provide gender-sensitive care. Therapy is for everyone who needs:
- Help to deal with the negative mental health effects of gender inequality
- A safe, unbiased, and compassionate space to talk about their experiences
- Feel supported by those who understand what they’re going through
- Gain coping skills to resist discrimination and improve mental health
- Work with someone who knows that gender plays an important role in therapy outcomes
- Strengthen resilience during times of uncertainty
- Vent their frustrations
- Learn more about gender disparity
- Improve self-confidence and increase self-worth
- Recover self-image and self-identity
- Rediscover a personal female power of today
You deserve to live a life free from stereotypes, judgments, biases, unfairness, and violence. And you deserve the best living conditions that allow you to thrive. So let’s make a change in your life and mental health together!
Try Calmerry therapy
Kate has an MD in Health and Medical Psychology. She has worked in the healthcare industry since 2017, helping people with depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief as well as identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Kate tries to make the world a better place by fighting stigma and discrimination and advocating for equality and equity for all people. And what she loves most about her work at Calmerry is the possibility to make quality mental health care even more accessible to everyone – one step at a time.Read more