News media are constantly reporting ways that everyday activities can damage our health. But perhaps the most far-reaching yet neglected global health risk stems from gender norms.
Despite overwhelming evidence that gender-based stereotypes and expectations can adversely impact health, gender-related health issues are largely ignored or misunderstood, with international health organsations often limiting gender-specific efforts to women or, even more narrowly, to mothers.
And yet, according to the World Health Organisation, in all but three countries worldwide, women can expect to outlive men, by up to seven years in Japan or by as little as a year in the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
Women’s longer life expectancy has long been linked to differences in “biological pre-disposition”, with theories ranging from the protection afforded by women’s lower iron levels to the absence of “extra” genes on men’s Y chromosome.
But the most obvious factors shortening men’s lives are to be found in a more pedestrian, yet politically sensitive, area: the differences in the “appropriate” behaviour of men and women, as dictated by society and reinforced by the market.
Data published in The Lancet last year show that the top 10 most burdensome global diseases are more common in men than women, and often by a large margin. For example, men die from lung cancer at more than twice the rate of women.
Likewise, road injuries and alcohol-related deaths and disability are responsible for the loss of three times as many years of healthy life in men than in women.
These disparities can be explained largely by the fact that men are exposed to more risks than women.
While there may be a biological component to men’s propensity for risk-taking (especially among young men), gender norms reinforce risky or unhealthy behaviours by associating them with masculinity.
Understanding and exploiting gender norms offers commercial benefits. Given that social norms in much of the world discourage women from smoking, drinking alcohol, and, in some cases, driving cars and motorcycles, advertisers in these industries target men.
Differences in health outcomes are exacerbated further by women’s tendency to use healthcare services more than men. Some of this additional use is due to women’s needs for family-planning or prenatal services.
Although gender norms are clearly undermining men’s health worldwide, key international organisations continue to disregard the problem or address only those issues that are specific to girls and women when devising strategies to improve global health.
To be sure, girls and women are less powerful, less privileged, and have fewer opportunities than men worldwide. But that does not justify disregarding the evidence.