Gender norms are taking a toll on boys' and girls' mental health around the world, a new study has found.
Youth are conforming to gender stereotypes to fit in and gain social status, threatening gender equality progress globally, according to new research released Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study series is part of the larger Johns Hopkins Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS).
An international network of researchers conducted in-depth studies with more than 10,000 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 14 in low-income communities in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Belgium to understand how gender stereotypes show up across cultures and life experiences.
“Adolescence is a window of opportunity when young people reevaluate their identities and behaviors and encounter certain gender stereotypes that unfortunately can be very harmful,” Dr. Robert Blum, who leads the GEAS, said in a press release issued to Global Citizen.
Gender stereotypes enforced by the segregation of boys and girls when they reach puberty contributes to significant health consequences including violence, victimization, and depression, Dr. Caroline Moreau, associate family and reproductive health professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health behind the GEAS’s research, explained in the press release.
When boys and girls segregate into gendered social worlds, their exposure to different challenges connected to health risks factors increases. A study of more than 3,200 Indonesian youth found that boys were more likely than girls to report parental neglect or witnessing domestic abuse. The study linked the lack of reporting such behavior to a greater risk of violent encounters with peers.
Dr. Robert Blum shares key takeaways from the @geastudy. "We cannot assume that increasing #girlsempowerment will in itself promote #genderequality, nor will promoting gender equality alone translate to empowerment" pic.twitter.com/klCu5QrAIf— Deborah Walnicki (@deborahwalnicki) June 30, 2021
“Boys socialized to conform to traditional masculine ideology may demonstrate it through violence,” Dr. Astha Ramaiya, a GEAS research associate and the lead author of the study, said in the release.
Meanwhile, youth living in urban areas of China, Ecuador, Belgium, and Indonesia who were internalizing gender stereotypes that favored masculinity and devalued feminine traits were more likely to report depression symptoms. What’s more, depression was much higher for young girls.
Young girls are already at a disadvantage compared to boys when it comes to receiving an education and people with depression can experience loss of interest and poor concentration, significantly impacting their academic performance, confidence, and self-image, making it even harder to get ahead.
Adolescents who embraced more “gender-equal” views, however, were less likely to report depression which was most evident in girls in urban areas in Indonesia.
Interventions that guide young people away from traditional gender stereotypes and toward a more balanced view of gender roles can positively improve adolescent mental health, according to Leah Koenig, the lead researcher focused on the study’s mental health issues.
GEAS also documented instances in which young adolescents internalized gender roles and expressed some discomfort with cultural norms that create gender-based double standards.
Despite their discomfort, many young people tended to choose to conform to existing gender roles because it’s easier, Blum explained.
Gender norms negatively impact women’s economic empowerment by influencing ideas of the appropriate roles women and men should play in society, at home, and in the workplace. As a result, women receive less educational, employment, and property-owning opportunities and access to health care, which means they are more likely to live in poverty than men.
“Pushing back could carry the risk of diminishing their nascent self-confidence if young adolescents are not properly supported,” Blum said. “Understanding such nuances will be critical if we are ever going to achieve the United Nations goal of achieving gender equality by 2030.”