Sexisms & Women's Mental Health

By Toner, Brenda; Ross, Lori E. | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Sexisms & Women's Mental Health


Toner, Brenda, Ross, Lori E., Women & Environments International Magazine


These days, many believe sexism to be a thing of the past. Women are enjoying equal access to education and holding higher-ranking positions than ever before, and many of the fundamental battles of the women's movement, such as equal pay for equal work, seem to have been won. A careful look however, reveals that sexist attitudes persist, and that these attitudes are expressed in subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways. Women continue to experience discrimination on the basis of their sex, and this discrimination has an important implication for their physical and mental health.

What is a sexist environment?

Sexist environments take many forms. Some women live or work in environments where they are explicitly physically, verbally, or sexually harassed as a result of their sex. Women who live in constant threat of violence at the hands of their husbands or partners inhabit sexist environments, as do women who are continually the focus of sexual remarks made by male employers or colleagues. Although these cases are not the norm, almost all women are routinely exposed to sexist jokes, comments or gestures made by family members, friends, public figures such as entertainers, or even strangers on the street. Even more insidious are the systemic and institutionalized forms of sexism: lack of affordable child care which forces women to be isolated at home with their children and forego education or career opportunities; social expectations that women will do the bulk of the unpaid house work and child care even after returning home from a long day of paid work. As a result of our society's assumptions and expectations of women, virtually all women are forced to live in sexist environments.

What are the consequences for mental health?

Recently, research has begun to explore the impact of explicitly sexist environments and experiences on women's physical and mental health. These studies are using a variety of research methods, including daily diaries and laboratory exposure to sexist comments or experiences. The results clearly demonstrate that when women are exposed to sexist remarks or experiences, they report increases in negative emotions, including depression, anxiety and anger.

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