Women affected by sexism are three times more likely to report depression

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Women who believe they have experienced sexism are three times more likely to report depression, new research suggests.

A fifth of women (19.5%) reported having been sexually discriminated against in a study by University College London (UCL) – most commonly on the street, public transport and in or around train and bus stations.

The researchers analysed data from nearly 3,000 women aged 16 and over from the UK Household Longitudinal Study.

The 2,956 women were asked in 2009-10 if they had felt unsafe, avoided going to or being in, been insulted, called names, threatened or shouted at, or been physically attacked in various settings over the last year.

They were asked why they thought this was, and to describe their mental health.

The women who believed they were discriminated against due to their sex were three times more likely to report depression than women who reported experiencing no sex discrimination.

They were also 26% more likely to experience psychological distress.

When followed up, they had greater levels of psychological distress than women who did not report having been subject to sexist behaviour.

Few men reported sex discrimination so were not included in the analysis, the authors said.

Lead author Dr Ruth Hackett, from the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at UCL, said the UK needs to “legislate and catch up with other European countries where street harassment already is illegal”.

She said: “We found that women who reported perceived sex discrimination were more likely to be depressed and have greater psychological distress, as well as poorer mental functioning, life satisfaction and self-rated health.

“There are several possible explanations for the link between sexism and poorer mental health. Sexism may serve as a barrier to healthy lifestyles that promote mental wellbeing, for example, if women avoid exercising in settings they perceive to be unsafe or use substances to cope with discriminatory experiences.

“Repeated exposure to stress may also lead to ‘wear and tear’ that disrupts normal biological processes.”

Of the women who said they had experienced sex discrimination, 93.9% reported feeling unsafe, 38.1% avoiding somewhere and 18.1% being insulted.

The most common settings for the perceived sex discrimination were on public streets (77%), public transport (39.9%), and at or around bus and train stations (38.9%).

Sex discrimination was less frequently reported in school or workplace settings (12%) or in the home environment (10.5%).

Younger, wealthier, better educated, white women reported more discrimination and further research is needed to understand why, the authors said.

Dr Sarah Jackson, senior author on the study from the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at UCL, said: “The issue of sex discrimination is one that has garnered increasing attention over recent years in the wake of the Me Too movement.

“Our results are particularly concerning in suggesting an enduring impact of experiences of sex discrimination on mental health and wellbeing.

“They underscore the importance of tackling sexism not only as a moral problem but one that may have a lasting legacy on mental health.”

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is published in Health Psychology.

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