Gender discrimination has a significant impact on mental and physical health worldwide. It can limit peoples’ access to healthcare, increase rates of ill health, and lower life expectancy.

While it is true that women live longer than men on average, they experience higher rates of ill health during their lifetimes. It is likely that gender discrimination and inequity contribute to this.

In this article, we look at what gender discrimination is and include specific examples. We then explore the effects of this discrimination on mental health, physical health, and healthcare.

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Gender discrimination is any action that excludes or disadvantages people based on their gender. It includes actions that are deliberately unfair and actions that are unintentionally unfair.

Gender discrimination is fueled by sexism, which is prejudice based on sex or gender. In most countries, sexism devalues women and femininity and privileges men and masculinity.

Because gender relates to how someone feels, rather than their biological characteristics, anyone who identifies with a gender that their society deems less valuable can experience gender discrimination. This includes trans and other gender-expansive people.

Learn more about different types of sexism.

Gender discrimination can take place in person-to-person interactions, as well as at an institutional or state level. It can occur:

  • In the workplace: Deciding not to hire or promote someone, treating employees differently, or paying them less based on their gender are all examples of workplace discrimination. Peers can participate by excluding women colleagues from important meetings, for example.
  • In schools: Preventing or discouraging girls and young women from participating in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as science, math, and sports, is an example of gender discrimination. Schools may also enforce gendered dress codes, punish those who do not conform to gender norms, or fail to punish bad behavior on the basis that “Boys will be boys.”
  • In relationships: People who prevent their partners from doing things on the basis of their gender are also acting in a discriminatory way. This might include stopping women from working, managing their money, and driving, for example.
  • In public: Sexual harassment and catcalling are unwanted, and they are forms of discrimination. These behaviors can make people feel unsafe, and they can restrict how people use public spaces. This limits a person’s freedom.
  • In institutions: Organizations, governments, and legal and healthcare systems can enact policies that discriminate against certain genders, either intentionally or unintentionally. Examples include laws that allow gender-based violence to thrive, that punish people for expressing their gender, or that disadvantage certain groups financially.

It is important to understand that discrimination based on gender can be coupled with discrimination based on race, class, disability, and sexuality.

Read more about the effects of racism on health.

Gender discrimination is a source of stress, and like any other stressor, it can directly affect mental health.

Research from 2020 refers to a study in which women who reported experiencing gender discrimination in the past 12 months scored more highly than others on a depression screening tool.

Depending on the situation, facing discrimination can also result in anxiety and psychological trauma.

The authors of the research paper argue that discrimination plays a key role in the “gender gap” in rates of mental illness. Women experience higher rates of most mental health conditions, including:

Women are also 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than men, although men are more likely to die by suicide.

For people assigned female at birth, biological factors may play a role in these differences. However, studies have found fewer gender differences in the rates of mental illness in societies with more equality among men and women. This suggests that inequity and discrimination play a major role in these disparities.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, gender inequality is also a risk factor for gender-based violence.

Thirty percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. The rate is higher, 47%, among trans people, and even higher among trans people of color and those who have done sex work, experienced homelessness, or have a current or past disability.

Experiencing any type of abuse or assault can lead to a mental health condition, as well as further complications that are traumatic in themselves. For example, if a person survives sexual assault, they may become pregnant, contract a sexually transmitted infection, or become excluded from their community.

Gender discrimination has direct and indirect effects on physical health. These include:

Illness

Some research suggests that experiencing discrimination is correlated with worse physical health.

For example, a 2018 study found that women who experience discrimination at work are more likely to report ill physical health, and particularly women who have experienced sexual harassment.

Stress from any source can also contribute to many chronic conditions, including chronic pain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Less healthy living conditions

Gender discrimination can also lead to a person having worse living conditions and less access to the things that they need to survive and thrive.

For example, in the United States, the gender pay gap means that women earn less than men overall — even when performing the same jobs. The pay gap is wider for women of color.

Women also have higher levels of student debt, lower savings in retirement, and higher rates of poverty, in comparison to men.

Not only does this cause more stress, it also reduces a person’s ability to afford fresh food, safe housing, and health insurance. This results in health inequity — avoidable and unfair differences in the health of marginalized groups, compared with privileged ones.

Learn more about health inequity.

Injury and death

Discrimination in the form of violence also directly impacts health. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is just one example of this.

FGM is unnecessary surgery to remove part or all of the genitalia of young females, who are typically younger than 15. Communities that practice FGM may believe that it will make girls more pure and suitable for marriage, and less likely to have extramarital sex.

People who survive the procedure can experience severe pain, bleeding, infections, and lifelong sexual health problems. Some die as a result of complications.

Gender discrimination has a profound effect on healthcare, reducing the speed, accuracy, and quality of treatment. It affects diagnosis and treatment in many ways, including:

  • Dismissal of symptoms: According to a 2018 review, doctors are more likely to view women’s chronic pain as psychological, exaggerated, or even made up, in comparison with men’s pain. This can leave people without support or treatment.
  • Incorrect or delayed diagnoses: Prejudices about gender can result in people getting incorrect diagnoses or having to wait for years for any diagnosis. For example, a 2020 article found that it takes doctors 6.5 months longer to diagnose moderate hemophilia in females than in males, and 39 months longer to diagnose severe hemophilia. This is despite the fact that females are more likely to notice symptoms of bleeding disorders, such as hemophilia.
  • Withholding care: Research from 2017 found that doctors routinely deny cis women access to birth control until they undergo annual pap smears. This form of manipulation is unethical and harmful, as it denies a person the ability to choose what happens to their body when.
  • Obstetric violence: This involves forcing medical interventions onto a person who is giving birth, without their consent. The term also refers to verbal and physical abuse during labor. A 2019 study found that out of 2,016 observed births taking place in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, and Myanmar, 41.6% of women experienced obstetric violence or abuse.

Gender discrimination also affects healthcare workers, the majority of whom are women. For example, a 2019 report on the British Medical Association found that the organization engaged in widespread discrimination against women, including bullying and sexual harassment.

In the face of this discrimination, doctors who are women are just as capable as doctors who are men. A 2017 study, for example, found that patients of female surgeons were 4% less likely to die within 30 days of a procedure, compared with patients of male surgeons. Each patient in the study had undergone one of 25 types of surgery.

Learn more about gender bias in medical diagnosis here.

Sexism reduces the health and well-being of everyone. If a person experiences discrimination and this damages their health, it has a knock-on effect on their family, friends, and the wider community.

A 2017 report notes that gender inequality contributes to unemployment and poverty among women and has adverse effects on child health and development.

Indirectly, sexism also harms men. The need to live up to masculine stereotypes can result in men not seeking medical help when they need it, behaving in ways that damage their health, and becoming involved in violence.

The economic cost of this is huge. Research from 2016 found that institutional gender discrimination costs the global economy $12 trillion, or 16% of the world’s total income.

Everyone has a responsibility to learn about and help end gender discrimination — it directly or indirectly harms everyone. People can learn more from:

  • UN Women, a United Nations entity that provides educational resources about the rights of women and girls
  • the WHO, which publishes reports, fact sheets, and articles about the impact of sexism on health
  • Birth Monopoly, Human Rights in Childbirth, and ImprovingBirth.org, which are working to educate about and end obstetric violence
  • SisterSong, which focuses on healthcare and maternal mortality among Black and Indigenous women
  • The Trevor Project, which works to end suicide and provide crisis intervention and other support for LGBTQIA+ youth

The effects of gender discrimination are global. This discrimination harms mental and physical health, leads to poverty, creates and enforces cycles of abuse and violence, and restricts access to healthcare.

Anyone can counter gender discrimination by learning about its causes, manifestations, and effects — and by taking action to stop it.