Last year, nationwide polling showed that female respondents across a range of age groups — but especially between the ages of 18 and 34 — were more likely than males to report that their mental health was bad or very bad. What accounts for that disparity, and what has the pandemic shown us about social roles and expectations?
TVO.org speaks with Ivy Lynn Bourgeault, a professor at the University of Ottawa and University Research Chair in Gender, Diversity and the Professions, about how gender intersects with mental health — and why “getting back to normal” shouldn’t be the goal.
TVO.org: Collectively, our mental health has been affected during the pandemic. In what way have women been particularly affected over the past two years?
Ivy Lynn Bourgeault: Previous to the research chair that I have, I held a chair that looked at gender, work, and health; it was based on the overwhelming science that gender has a huge impact on the experience of work and the experience of health — and that to take a gender -neutral approach to anything that was work- and health-related, which would include mental health, would be inappropriate. Gender does really matter. Not just gender in and of itself, but how it intersects with other identities. Our age, where we are in our life stage, our racial identity, the level of ability or disability that we have. There are all these intersecting factors, and each of them will have an impact on how the pandemic has been experienced.
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TVO.org: There was a study that showed that female respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 were more likely to report that their mental health was bad or very bad as a result of the pandemic. I’m wondering whether you can talk to me a little bit about that particular age group.
Bourgeault: It’s important, first of all, to recognize that there are gender differences in reporting mental-health issues. Disproportionately, women will be more likely to report mental-health issues than men. But there are differences between the way that — and I’ll just talk in the binary for now — men and women report mental-health issues. Individuals who identify as boys or men are socialized over their lives to not acknowledge these things, to act out rather than seek help. And those who identify as girls and women are socialized to express their feelings and therefore more likely to report.
The age group that you mentioned is disproportionately the one having children, raising children, have children in school. And men and women that are parents — whether that be same-sex or different types of partnerships — experience parenthood differently. There are different activities and responsibilities that each are socialized to take on. Those who identify as women do more unpaid care work, which could be child care, homeschooling, the body work that you do to give birth, to nurse, etc. Some of those things are very much based in biology, but more of the division of labour in terms of parenting is very much socially and culturally ascribed. So there has been an additional burden placed on women — particularly women in this age group.
And when you add other forms of intersectionality on top of that, there are certain subgroups that have additional responsibilities and additional stressors on their mental health.
TVO.org: I know you’ve also done work looking at health migration, and I want to talk about how these issues play out when you’re talking about women who have migrated to Canada for work. How does that factor compound some of the issues you’ve raised?
Bourgeault: The health, social, and child-care sectors are disproportionately women. So we have a highly gendered female health workforce. And for those who are coming from other countries, disproportionately low- and middle-income countries — South Africa in terms of physicians; the Philippines and India in terms of physicians and nurses — they come to Canada, and their credentials are underrecognized. They are underutilized in terms of their skillset.
What we saw in research we did probably about 10 years ago is that what ends up happening is a double isolation of these workers. Their credentials are underrecognized, they are displaced from their family, they are precariously employed because of the lack of recognition of their skills, so it can be additionally challenging and isolating. That additional intersection of being internationally educated, being an immigrant to Canada, is really important to keep in mind.
TVO.org: There’s a widespread desire to get back to “normal.” How should we move forward, knowing what we know now?
Bourgeault: The pandemic has uncovered many things that were problematic. And I really do want to pick up on the wording that you use: we want to move forward. Going back to the way it was … the “normal” was not normal. There were problems with that, and I think we need to talk about a new normal that we are purposive about. We have this opportunity now to build in a way that acknowledges the bias that is inherent in our systems and the mental-health implications of those biases. We can use this as a natural experiment that will enable us to take a leap toward being a much more just and civilized society — one that is more equitable, thoughtful, and inclusive of all the different experiences that we have.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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