Sexism causes mental and physical harm

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Prejudice against women has obvious social and professional consequences. But it can cause mental and physical harm too, according to a new study by Health Psychology. Approximately 3,000 women participated in the study. Researchers analyzed their mental wellbeing between 2009 and 2010, and then again four years later.

The research focused on the ways in which the women felt they were being discriminated against. These included catcalling, verbal insults and threats, feeling unsafe due to sexism, and physical attacks. Researchers found that women who experienced more of these situations had higher levels of depression and stress, lower levels of cognitive functioning, and also felt less healthy physically.

While it is not difficult to understand how being on the receiving end of gender discrimination can cause psychological problems, most people don’t tend to link sexism with a decline in physical health. But this is wrong—the researchers say such discrimination can result in “disturbed stress-related biological processes.” They write:

“Discrimination may be conceptualized as a social stressor, which could directly affect health via direct biological pathways. 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.”

This is not the first study to conclude that sexism against women does real physical damage. Others have found links between sexism and higher blood pressure (which of course is linked to high stress levels), diabetes, sleep disorders, fatigue, and higher cortisol reactivity. Worse still, sexism has been associated with self-destructive behavior like smoking and substance abuse. It’s a vicious circle.

One of the lead researchers in the Health Psychology study summed up their conclusions:

“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.”