Research Finds Sexism Can Actually Hurt Women's Physical & Mental Health

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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Gender equality isn't just an ethical and economic issue; it's also a health issue. A new study published in the journal Health Psychology found experiencing gender discrimination may affect women's health both physically and mentally.

Researchers analyzed data on nearly 3,000 British women collected between 2009 and 2010 and then again four years later. The women were surveyed on their mental health and their experiences of perceived discrimination on the basis of sex, such as getting catcalled, insulted, threatened, physically attacked, or feeling unsafe because of their identity as a woman. The results showed that experiencing higher levels of discrimination was linked to increased depression, increased psychological distress, poorer mental functioning, and worse self-reported physical health.

How could sexism affect your health so deeply? The mental health aspects are self-evident—experiencing biased treatment, oppression, or dismissal over your identity can be emotionally overwhelming, painful, and even traumatizing. Physically, the researchers suggest such frequent exposure to these types of distressing experiences could also be causing "disturbed stress-related biological processes." 

"Discrimination may be conceptualized as a social stressor, which could directly affect health via direct biological pathways," they write in their paper on the study. "Frequent activation of the stress responses system as a result of perceived chronic discrimination could lead to 'wear and tear' on the body resulting in dysregulation across multiple biological systems."

Past research has shown perceived discrimination is associated with increased cardiovascular stress reactivity; one study found a link specifically between sexual harassment and raised systolic blood pressure, and another linked exposure to sexist events to heightened cortisol reactivity. Studies have also shown experiencing discrimination is associated with greater rates of diabetes, respiratory problems, sleep disturbances, and daytime fatigue.

Another theory the researchers have is that discrimination may act as a "barrier to a healthy lifestyle" because of the negative health behaviors women may adopt in response to their negative experiences. For example, a woman might avoid exercise in a setting she perceives to be unsafe. Or worse, she might adopt an unhealthy method of coping with the negative psychological effects of discrimination. Past research has shown experiencing gender-related discrimination is associated with binge drinking, smoking, and drug use.

"The issue of sex discrimination is one that has garnered increasing attention over recent years in the wake of the Me Too movement," said Sarah Jackson, Ph.D., a psychologist from the University College London who helped lead the study, in a news release. "Our results are particularly concerning in suggesting an enduring impact of experiences of sex discrimination on mental health and well-being. They underscore the importance of tackling sexism not only as a moral problem but one that may have a lasting legacy on mental health."

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