Why Aren’t Men and Women Equal? Gender Inequality in the United States and Its Impact on Mental Health

Dr. Sera Lavelle

Gender Inequality: The Wealth & Power Gap

Women make up nearly 51% of the population in the United States, and yet, they lag far behind men in terms of wealth and power. According to the Pew Research Center, working women in the U.S. still make only 85% of what their male counterparts earn for comparable work, and this gap increases as the pay and position rise. For instance, Fortune Magazine notes that for Fortune 500 companies, only 25.4% of board members are women, while only 6.6% of women are CEOs. According to All Raise, only 11% of venture capitalists are women, and 71% of venture capitalist firms don't have a single female partner, with only 7% reporting equal gender representation.

In addition to wealth inequality, women also lag tremendously in terms of power. For one, women were not granted their voice in the political system until the 19th amendment was added in 1920. More to the point, 100 years later, there has yet to be a female President or Vice President in the White House, and only 25% of the Senate and 23% of the House is composed of women today.

Given that women make up nearly 51% of the population, how exactly did this happen?

How Did the Inequality Between Men and Women Begin?

Although there are varying theories as to how and why inequality began between the sexes, nature is often seen as the originator of inequality. One such theory comes from Riane Eisler, who provides a conceptual framework for understanding the origins of gender inequality in her groundbreaking book: The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future. In her book, Eisler shares her study of ancient civilizations in which women led through cultivation and partnerships and contrasts it with male-led societies that focused on domination. She argues that even though female-led societies were extremely prosperous, they were often destroyed by male-led societies that employed a “dominator model” focused on war and destruction. 

Eisler’s dominance theory parallels the evolutionary view of the origin of inequality between the sexes. One of the main theories within the field of evolutionary psychology is sexual dimorphism, which posits that the difference in physical appearance between males and females within a species (e.g., body mass and size) has a predictive value in terms of power and dominance. Generally speaking, females tend to have a higher status when their body size is relatively larger than males, and the reverse is true when males tend to be larger. Consistent with other primate species, human males have a larger body mass and weight than human females on average, which creates an imbalanced power differential.

Societal Factors of Inequality

Even if we assume that nature is the culprit for initiating the chasm between men and women, it is society that perpetuates it. For instance, several theorists cite the industrial revolution as a catalyst for furthering inequality between the sexes. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the United States was mainly agricultural, with men and women dividing labor on the farm. This created a situation in which men left to work outside of the home; in turn, they were predominantly surrounded by other men, while women stayed at home and mostly socialized with women. This led to the creation of what historians refer to as the ideology of ‘separate spheres,” a phenomenon in which women were expected to uphold the values of the “Cult of Domesticity.” According to professor and historian Barbara Welter (1966), women were taught that to be the ideal woman, they need to embody the four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Those presumed qualities acted to further alienate women from power and equality.

Moreover, the Industrial Revolution not only created different expectations for men and women, but also amplified the problems that result from financial dependence on men. In essence, this setup of financial dependence means that survival for women has historically been dependent on being attractive and subservient.

What Perpetuates Men and Women Being Unequal Today?

There are several factors in modern society that continue to contribute to inequality. In addition to the aforementioned wage and power gaps, there is still a large difference in child care responsibilities. According to Forbes, women are working more and yet still account for the majority of childcare responsibilities. They note that women take 10 times as much temporary leave to be with their newborns than men do, and they are more likely to work from home, look after sick kids, or even quit their jobs completely to be caretakers. 

This, of course, makes financial sense, as the cost of daycare is often more than a woman makes after taxes, pushing women to leave their jobs because continuing to work would be a financial strain on the family. Of note, this is not referring to times when staying at home is a positive and welcomed choice for the woman and the family, but instead, referring to those times when women are financially discouraged from working when they would otherwise want to do so. Additionally, although employers are legally required not to discriminate based on gender, concerns about paying maternity leave and losing an employee for months at a time may cause an unconscious bias, which leads employers to feel financially discouraged from hiring women. This, in turn, continues to perpetuate women’s financial reliance on men.

How Inequality Impacts Mental Health

There are several factors of inequality that contribute to different mental health impacts for men and women. On a very basic level, work brings satisfaction, purpose and socialization, which are fundamental factors that protect against depression and anxiety. As such, the lack of work, lower positions, and gender pay gap disproportionately affect women in terms of anxiety and depression. That being said, women also have protective factors that men do not have, such that women are encouraged to reach out for help and care for their own health better. This at least partially accounts for the fact that men, on average, have around a 3x higher rate of suicide than women.

One main mental health bias that is directly related to inequality between males and females is in regards to eating disorders, which affects young women far more greatly than young men. In The Cost of Competence: Why Inequality Causes Depression, Eating Disorders, and Illness in Women, Silverstein and Perlick argue that young women identified intellectually with their successful fathers, not with their traditional homemaker mothers. Disordered eating is one way of rejecting curvy, feminine bodies they perceive as barriers to achievement and recognition. To complicate matters further, thinner women are seen as more competent, and therefore, their paychecks are intrinsically linked to thinness, whereas the perception of male competence and their income are seldom related to their physical appearance. In other words, being thin affects women’s livelihoods both when they are working (as it relates to their pay), and also when they are not working, as “attractiveness” becomes key in finding and keeping the interest of the breadwinner.

The Importance of Making Gender a Part of Therapy

Creating space to talk about gender during therapy is extremely important, and yet, it is a delicate balance that can be hard to find. While it’s important to have an understanding of societal gender dynamics as a therapist, it’s paramount that therapists understand how that particular person identifies themselves in terms of gender and how much they feel that their gender is part of their identity. As an example, when I work with patients with eating disorders, it can be extremely helpful for us to discuss the gender dynamics at play in greater society so they can work through their own issues in regards to the societal pressures they feel are placed upon them. This is particularly important as people are increasingly identifying with nontraditional and nonbinary gender roles, which adds another another layer of complexity to the conversation and engenders different challenges.

That is not to say that the only therapist that would be beneficial for an individual would be one that has the same gender as the patient. In fact, I believe that working with a well-trained and knowledgeable therapist who has a different gender from the patient can have a profound impact. For instance, if a female struggling with body image issues had or has a father who viewed women as objects, having a male therapist who is enlightened on these issues can help that patient understand how it affected her and help her relearn that not all men view women in this way. The most important factor in choosing a therapist is finding someone who is educated and up-to-date about gender differences and works with their patients to find that delicate balance.

Dr. Sera Lavelle is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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