Gender Bias and Depression

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

This paper focuses on gendered stereotypes and how they have shaped the ideals, expectations, and behaviors of men and women. The purpose of the topic is to bring awareness to the oppression these stereotypes have placed on both men and women. These beliefs are taught to children by Social Role Theory, internalized, and reiterated, which only continues the cycle. Young boys and girls are experiencing depression at high rates: boys are experiencing depression linked to suicide and girls are being over diagnosed. Many believe that mothers and fathers are contributing to the problem by performing stereotypical gender roles in the home and workplace.

Society has convinced many of us that women and men are virtually from two different planets. Women come from a warm, nurturing place, while men on the other hand come from a cold, powerful place. Fortunately, this isn’t true. Women and men are more alike than they are different. Social expectations and gender stereotypes have caused a disconnect between male and female emotional behavior, but gender differences of emotions isn’t the main focus here. Instead, the beliefs of gendered emotions and how those beliefs have maintained a power imbalance and oppression of both men and women is. These distorted beliefs on emotions, personality, and appropriate gender behavior have left many women and men to feel trapped, which in many cases starts during childhood. Overall, men aren’t allowed to openly feel anything, while women are forced to prove that their feelings don’t make them any less competent than their male peers.

According to Shields (2013), there is an emotion paradox in western societies. Beliefs about emotions are persistent, yet completely contradictory. Emotions are viewed as the “anti-thesis” of logical and practical thinking: even though we know that emotions are necessary for healthy human performance. Emotion in women is seen as a negative, but also a positive. Women are ostracized for displaying their emotions in social and business settings, while simultaneously being praised for their emotional appeal when it comes to nurturing and caretaking. Being a woman is seen as an automatic and almost indefinite disadvantage in leadership positions: many argue that women are simply “too emotional” to deal with the stress accompanied by an authoritative position. The questions at hand typically revolve around a woman’s menstrual cycle: does PMS cause irrational, ethos driven decisions in the office? Men are not excluded from this emotional paradox. Because we live in a society that tells our youth “boys don’t cry” and “man up, stop whining like a girl”, many men are left to feel that any emotional expressivity is a sign of incompetence. Phrases like these have helped to create a hyper-masculine society; they suggest that emotions are feminine characteristics rooted in irrationality, while also reinforcing the idea that love and knowledge cannot coexist even though we know that humans are multidimensional.

Unfortunately, these gendered stereotypes have subconsciously been internalized and perpetuated by the same people they are oppressing. Often times, we are the agents and victims of oppression. In this case, that oppression is pushed onto our offsprings by observation. According to Deaux and Lafrance, Eagly’s (1987) Social Role Theory explains that the division of labor between genders has had the most influence on our beliefs about the roles and behaviors of men and women. Men are generally in higher paying, leadership positions, while women are the “helpers”: the secretary, the nurse, or the homemaker. Eagly argues that this division of labor has generated two types of gender related beliefs: first, the expectation of traits and behavior specific to a gender and second, the beliefs men and women have about their own capabilities and appropriate gender development. In short, gendered division of labor is shaping people’s perceptions of what characteristics are true to men and women, while also convincing us as individuals of our own role in society.  This structure naturally creates a power imbalance; it suggest that men are more suitable working outside the home or in a position that doesn’t require emotional engagement, while also implying that women are biologically inferior to men because of their willingness to attach emotionally.

How are these implications passed on to children? By mere observation: children are impressionable and reiterate the behavior that they’ve been taught. Social Role Theory may help to explain why girls and women are more likely to experience depression or self-diagnosed depression. Not only is there a mental health double standard for men and women, but also a disparity between clinically diagnosed patients. Because women are convinced that they are naturally more inclined to irrational behavior, many overreact to their emotions and seek help. Completely natural emotional responses are often seen as too powerful or exaggerated, which implies a mental imbalance of some sort. Doctors are more likely to diagnose a women with depression than a man, yet men are more likely to commit suicide from depression. This paradox suggests that men are less likely to seek help when battling depression because mental and emotional instability emasculates a man’s image. In “A New Psychology of Women” (2003), Hilary M. Lips argues that doctors and clinicians hold different ideas on what is natural and healthy for men and women: the ideals on what is considered healthy for an adult change based on the patient’s gender. According to doctors, a healthy woman is more submissive, more emotional and easily hurt, more vain in appearance, high strung, less competitive, less aggressive, and more dependent than a healthy man (Lip, 2003. pg 323). Yes, some of these characteristic are true for some women, but they are not exclusive to women. Men experience these same emotions and behaviors: these traits are more personality based than gender based. A person’s personality dictates their behavior, not their gender. The assumption that women are naturally high strung and less competent is just sexes and biased.

Brett Silverstein and Arthur D. Lynch (2002), argue that gender differences in depression in adolescents can be explained by the roles played by their parents. Paternal attitudes of male superiority and maternal modeling of gender-related limitations are passed on to children at home. Dad is more likely to engaged in rough or horse play with children, while mom is anxiously watching asking him not to be so aggressive. Mom is limited to housework and caretaking, while dad is free to work outside the home and do some caretaking of the kids: that’s if he’s not too busy or tired with work, of course. What does this behavior and role playing teach children? It teaches them that a man is naturally superior, aggressive, and more likely to succeed in the paid workforce, while simultaneously teaching them that women are limited to a particular type of work: one that involves anxiety and caretaking. Silverstein and Lynch suggest that there are two types of depression: anxious somatic depression and pure depression. Girls are more likely to experience anxious somatic depression, which is rooted in anxiety and accompanied by fatigue, sleep deprivation, and appetite lost. They continue by explaining that most girls whom suffer from this type of depression are ones that see their career and academic achievement as limited because of their gender or because of their observations of their mother’s limitations. Boys on the other hand, are more likely to experience pure depression, which is unaccompanied by fatigue or sleep loss, but instead is rooted in genetics. These findings imply that the depression girls experience is more social, while boys experience a more genetic, chemical imbalance. Of course women experience chemical depression as well, but many who are considered depressed are depressed because of social factors and circumstances.

Men and women are not naturally different when it comes to mental and emotional health. Society has taught men to control their emotional response because it’s the manly thing to do. Women are taught that they are limited to certain positions because of the stereotypes that are attached to femininity. These beliefs are over diagnosing girls and women, while underdiagnosing boys and men. 


Work Cited

Hunter, A. E, & C. Forden. (2016).Readings in the psychology of gender : Exploring our differences and commonalities. Boston, MA, Allyn and Bacon.

Lips, H. M. (2016). A new psychology of women : Gender, culture, and ethnicity. Boston, McGraw-Hill.

Shields, S. A. (2013). Gender and emotion: What we think we know, what we need to know, and why it matters. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 37(4), 423-35.