Why Do Women Suffer More From Stress?

Statistically, women suffer from depression and anxiety disorders more frequently than men. The only exception to this is social anxiety disorder, which seems to occur in equal numbers regardless of sex. For all other forms of anxiety, including everything from acute stressors to diagnosed anxiety disorders, women tend to be the forerunners.

Anxiety disorders can be debilitating. They can increase the risk of diseases, including heart disease, which kills 17.7 million people globally every year. They can also increase the risk of depression and suicide in people who suffer from them and can prevent people from being able to function on a day-to-day basis. Mental illness can dramatically affect your standard of living.

While we know that women suffer from anxiety more frequently than men, the reasons why are still unclear. It’s most likely that there is a combination of nature and nurture at the heart of it, meaning that some factors are biological and some are environmental. Most studies will not be able to account for all of the influences, but we can consider them from a broad perspective.

Nature

Research shows that women tend to have more hormonal fluctuations than men do. Some of the hormones that surge during pregnancy, for example, are correlated with an increased tendency to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is classified as perinatal OCD. Hormonal fluctuations may contribute to an increased level of stress, but they don’t necessarily account for the increased frequency of lifelong anxiety diagnoses in women.

There do appear to be some genetic factors. Based on studies of twins and family records, women are more likely to have stress and anxiety issues. These studies are the best indicators we have that some stress is due to a difference between the sexes and rather than environmental conditions.

Nurture

A key indicator that environment influences stress is that prevalence differs between cultures. Women in North America have been found to be more stressed than women in other cultures, despite generally having better access to the resources to create what many would consider relatively more comfortable lives for themselves.

This cultural difference could be explained by the fact that stress is often measured by Western standards, so it’s possible this is a false positive result. However, I believe it’s still fair to assume that the environment a person is in can contribute to their stress levels.

Today, most women still perform the majority of the unpaid work at home, despite joining or wanting to join the workforce. Even as more women enter the workforce, they is often an expectation that they will continue to take responsibility for housework.

Of course, it’s a difficult feat to keep up a home and a career without one interfering with the other. Women are also still generally expected to be caretakers – the ones responsible for remembering birthdays and anniversaries, sending out cards and making sure everyone in the family is fed and taken care of.

Many women do attest to having a caretaker mentality, though it’s hard to say if this is innate or created from societal expectations. While every woman is different, the responsibility and expectation can take an emotional toll. And while it’s becoming more common for men to take on the same at-home responsibilities as women, I don’t believe that it is expected of men in the same way.

The mental health gap between men and women may be partially biological, but it doesn’t have to be as wide as it is. Ultimately, working toward a more equitable environment will benefit everyone.

Do We Still Need Miss./Mrs. Titles?

In the past, titles allowed society to distinguish whether women were married or single. Single women had the title of “Miss.” If they were married, the distinction changed to “Mrs.” These terms still hold true today — however, the term “Ms.” is acceptable for both married and unmarried women.

Of course, men weren’t and still aren’t subjected to the same type of naming conventions, and most of the time they use the title “Mr.” — though there is some historical information showing boys under a certain age could be referred to as “Master” until they reached adulthood.

In general, the whole naming convention can be incredibly confusing and unnecessary. After all, why is it important for a doctor to know whether or not a female patient is married or single to treat them? For that matter, why does any company need to know a woman’s marital status to offer them any service at all? And how do these titles apply to lesbian, transgender or non-binary individuals? Do they see and define themselves in the same way these terms want them to define themselves? Does anyone define themselves in the way these terms want them to?

Language is a way for people to communicate with one another, but it can also be a means of control and oppression. Name-calling and hate speech are two particularly vicious examples. It’s also possible that continuing to label women with terms that define marital status is a way to exercise control through language.

We live in an age where women earn money, pay for their own lives and make independent life decisions. Women are no longer extensions of their husbands, but separate and self-sufficient entities. In fact, more men are opting to take their wives’ last names for a variety of reasons, overturning the tradition of wives taking husbands’ last names. The most common practice is still for a woman to take her husband’s last name, but it’s also acceptable for women to keep their maiden names, hyphenate two names or even for couples to decide on a brand-new last name that both change to. The decision rests with the couple.

Since the decision of how a person wants to be addressed is so personal, it seems demanding and oppressive that women should have to choose a prefix from a list of terms they may or may not identify with, especially when society doesn’t hold men to the same standards.

Attempting to change English to be more inclusive and less oppressive isn’t a new proposal, but it is problematic and difficult to accomplish. However, one of the first steps to making a change is to recognize that a problem exists, and to call out those using oppressive language. In time, perhaps society will change how we address women and men, along with minorities, the LBGTQ community and anyone who feels mistreated, stereotyped or unable to define themselves accurately through existing language.

Times have changed, but we are still holding on to an outdated form of defining women’s identity. Granted, some women and men still believe in keeping with tradition and hanging on to these naming conventions, which may be part of the reason they’ve endured so long. But at some point, shouldn’t we all agree to update them?

Why We’re Not Finding Out the Sex of Our Baby

I’m 36 weeks pregnant. This is my second pregnancy and my husband and I have decided not to find out the sex of our baby – although it is the most common question that we receive: “Do you know what it is?” “Is it a boy or a girl?

When I tell people we don’t know, they resort to the answer that “oh, you want the surprise!” Yet, the surprise of our baby’s genitals is not the only reason why we are not finding out the sex of our baby.

Gender norms surround us all the time, they are ingrained in our societies like DNA is in our bodies. In many ways, these norms are harmful to girls and boys – to all people. These norms limit people’s existence and categorize people before we even get to know them. My husband and I are not spared from these ideas that surround us – ideas that classify people by their appearance and by stereotypes.

If you are unaware in any way of the ‘norms’ I am referring to, here are just a few examples:

  • Girls are little princesses, often quieter and more respectful than boys. Girls play nice. Girls are sensitive.
  • Boys are noisy and messy – that’s just the way boys are. Boys are tough!
  • Girls like pink and boys like blue.
  • Men should be masculine – often defined by being strong, tough, big, buff and independent.
  • Women are defined by their beauty and behavior, often sexualized as objects for others to view and judge.

These norms often result in words and phrases like:

  • To boys: “Boys don’t cry! Stop being such a girl.”
  • To boys and men: “Get yourself together. Be a man!”
  • To girls who do as they are told: “Good girl.”
  • To young women who wear short skirts: “She’s such a slut.”
  • To girls who have leadership qualities: “She’s so bossy!”
  • And the list goes on…

In many ways these norms start even before birth. We have an idea that there are differences between boys and girls – stereotypes that will follow these little humans as they grow outside the womb and are bombarded by what people say to them and what they see around them. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that our children grow up to be free – free to be themselves, even if that means busting stereotypes.

As I am preparing for our second child, and as I equip my toddler for the world of pre-school and Swedish winter, I am horrified by how children are “forced” into gender norms at such a young age. The majority of Swedish fashion brands divide up children’s clothing by sex, with boys’ clothes featuring dinosaurs (something my preschooler loves to play with) and girls’ clothes printed with Disney princesses.

Furthermore, phrases like “Future Leader” can be found in the boys’ section, whereas the statements on girls’ clothes are often limited to cute phrases about love, beauty and occasional unicorns splashed with glitter. Now, I am all for cute floral dresses and sweet sailor suits – but there is something ultimately wrong in what we are teaching our kids about themselves and their peers, fostering a discriminatory culture that limits both boys and girls. What we teach children goes beyond the clothes that they wear. These norms are prevalent in classrooms, on playgrounds, on TV and billboards and in most social environments.

As women and girls are often seen as the “weaker” sex, a preference for boys is prevalent in many cultures. In India, this male-preference has made gender-revealing ultrasounds during pregnancy illegal – as the abortion rate is higher when the fetus is female. Now, the problem of gendercide remains a major issue in the country, where an estimated 45 million girls and women are missing in the population. 

Just like adults, children are often limited by their sex – which is a problem since all humans have a unique setup of DNA, with differing appearances, personality traits, preferences and interests.

When we had our first child, we could never have imagined that her personality would be so rich – something we got to experience even in the first few weeks of her life. During pregnancy, we talked about whether our baby would be a boy or a girl, and how that would be different – but I’m glad we waited until we got to know her, as I am sure that our culture would have affected our thoughts about how the little human growing in my womb would be.

You can of course have an open mind even if you find out the sex of your baby – and it can even help prepare you as a parent to fight harmful gender stereotypes and enable you to think through what it means to be a parent. Yet, you will never know what awaits you, and there is just so much you can prepare for without knowing who the little person will be.

Fathers’ Role in Achieving Gender Equality

Women in OECD countries spend, on average, 4.5 hours per day doing unpaid work such as cooking and caring for children. This compares to about 2 hours for men. Even if the division of unpaid labor has become more equal over the years, women are still doing more, and this results in unequal health outcomes for everyone.

“Women, even full-time working women, spend fewer hours on average doing paid work than their husbands or partners do. That may be due in part to the fact that there’s this expectation or default arrangement where they are doing more of the child care or housework.” – Kim Parker, Pew Research Center

When I attended WABA’s Global Breastfeeding Forum in October 2016, I was a struck by Duncan Fisher’s (Family Initiative UK) enthusiasm towards fathers’ role in advancing breastfeeding progress globally.

In this year’s International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) Congress, I was pleased to see that Fisher was invited to a plenary session on women’s rights where he spoke about engaging fathers in maternal and newborn health, and the impact this has on advancing gender equality. Because, as Fisher put it, “the unequal sharing of caring roles is a major global driver of gender inequality”. And we know for sure that gender inequality damages both the physical and mental health of millions of women and girls worldwide.

Fathers are interested, they want information and they do want to be close to their children. Why then are women still the ones taking on the majority of the responsibility, and what consequences does this have? According to Fisher, there is a lack of public information and services directed at the fathers. They simply don’t know about all the benefits of engaging in caring for their children.

The evidence is out there – and it’s abundant!

Everyone wins when fathers engage, both in the short and long-term:

  • a father’s testosterone levels drop after the baby is born if he is physically present with the baby (i.e. cuddling!)
  • his oxytocin levels rise and so does the baby’s
  • breastfeeding rates increase
  • maternal mortality rates reduce
  • the mental health of mother and child improves
  • access to services improve
  • violence and abuse decrease

Fisher spoke about the neurobiological impact involvement has not only on the father’s brain, but also the mother’s. Caring for babies changes the brains of both parents, and the change lasts for the rest of their lives. And the more a parent cares for their baby, the more their brain changes. As if this wasn’t evidence enough: the more the parents’ brain changes, the better the child’s social skills are when they reach school.

Fisher also stressed the importance of midwives in fathers’ engagement, and said that midwives play an imperative role in encouraging fathers to cuddle skin-to-skin with their babies within the first few hours of life, and in informing men of the benefits of their involvement.

The unequal division of the responsibility of caring for, managing and educating children is unsustainable, and it undeniably affects mothers’ and babies’ health. Mothers should not be solely responsible for caring for their families – fathers must engage in order for us to achieve optimal health for women and children, as well as gender equality.

I am certain that the redistribution and reduction of unpaid care work and improved gender equality at home will improve quality of life, not only for women, but also for children and men. It most certainly is a win-win situation.

Family Initiative UK have launched an online course delivered by midwives and trainers which explores these issues. If you’re present in Toronto at this year’s ICM Congress, make sure to visit Family Initiative UK’s booth and learn more about the course! 

Girls’ Globe is at the 31st ICM Triennial Congress in Toronto, Canada. See all of the Girls’ Globe LIVE coverage here

Be #Bold4Her: Erasing Gender Norms

During this Tuesday’s sessions at the Women Deliver Conference I attended a plenary called “Be #Bold4Her on gender norms: What are we so afraid of?” where a panel of distinguished speakers were discussing the issue of gender norms. This was an interesting session in many ways, highlighting the different difficulties gender norms pose on especially women and girls – but also demonstrating how difficult it can be just to discuss about this issue.

That the issue of gender norms is a challenging, much debated and problematic topic is nothing new. This was also something that was evident during the panel, as speaker Dorothy Muroki (FHI 360 Chief of Party and CB-HIPP, Kenya) noted that the global north is already complete according to gender norms if you compare to the global south and the African countries as a response to a comment from Lenita Toivakka (Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Finland), who had said that Finland is one of the best countries in the world to be a mother. In response to Muroki, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (General Secretary, World YWCA) reminded the panel and audience of the fact that we actually need to learn from each other and not depend on just the developed countries.

So how come we so often discuss these topics in only the developing countries and not in the western world? As a young woman growing up in Sweden, I have faced daily struggles because of rigid and constraining gender norms. I am supposed to look in a certain way, wear certain clothes and act in certain forms – all in order to fulfill the norms about how a girl is expected to be.

Gumbonzvanda also said that a woman growing up and living in poverty is the most innovating woman that exists – because they have to be. I think this is an incredibly important thought. We often hear about projects in developing countries where women are able to flourish and broaden their skills and knowledge, and I think we all need to remind ourselves of the fact that all women and men around the world need to build bridges between  each other and work together on eliminating gender norms. Of course we have different problems in different parts of the world and some problems are worse than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inspire each other and learn from each other.

It is also important to encourage societies, individuals such as parents and educators, and also state actors to stand up against harmful gender norms – which can be a very challenging goal to achieve. Giving parents advice on how to raise their children is a difficult task, but we have to find ways to build dialogue and be able to discuss these challenging issues in a constructive manner – and help more people understand that breaking rigid and conservative gender norms is in the best interest of all of us.

I remember when a friend of my mother told me that she and her husband we’re always very cautious to not push traditional gender norms on their daughter. They let her wear whatever she felt comfortable with and wanted to prioritize that she could play and have fun rather than look nice. She came home from kindergarten one day when she was three years old and told her mom that the girls had started questioning why she wore pants and not dresses and why she was looking boyish. She told her mother that she didn’t felt pretty in her regular clothes anymore and that she instead felt like wearing a pink dress. While her mother felt that as long as the wish to wear a pink dress was coming from her daughter and not imposed by society on her, this is also an example of a situation where the society around her – namely her peers in kindergarten – were influenced by existing gender norms and had a preconceived notion of what girls and boys should or should not wear, only because of their gender. It might seem trivial – but it is not. It’s a symptom of a larger problem where we assign roles and expectations on girls and boys from a very young age that limit their opportunities not only in terms of what to wear and how to look, but in terms of what they want to study, what field of work they want to pursue, what skills they believe they possess or don’t have.

This is a typical example of how Sweden and all western countries also still have a long way to go to break rigid and harmful gender norms, both big and small. Society has a huge impact on how children perceive themselves, and it is our joint responsibility to strive to build societies where all children can strive and reach their full potential. As Gumbonzvanda said:

We need to empower each other and build bridges so that we together can eliminate gender norms.

We should not replace the existing gender norms with new ones, we should make sure to eliminate them and never look back. Every human being should be able to be, act and look however they want and feel comfortable with – despite what gender they identify with.

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