Friday, December 24, 2010

Gender Roles: Why Do Women Live Longer Than Men?

U.S. men die on average almost five years before women, far sooner if they're minorities, and a medical journal is calling the disparity a "silent health crisis." The American Journal of Public Health reports: Men have higher death rates than women for each of the 15 leading causes of death except Alzheimer's disease. Men's death rates are at least twice as high for accidents, murder, suicide and hardening of the liver. Women have lived longer for the past century, and although the gap is narrowing, men's life expectancy remains almost five years shorter than for women, with black men dying almost 12 years sooner on average than white women. Men are slightly more likely to get chronic diseases like high blood pressure or cancer, and twice as likely to consume more than five alcoholic drinks a day.
This trend is present in all developed countries. Obviously, I don't do research in this area, but a couple of things come to mind whenever I think of this disparity in life expectancy. Every time I see yet another study on this subject I immediately remember one of my freshmen intoning in a dejected voice: "I have to graduate, find a good job, start a family, and support my family. I can't think of travelling or doing things I like because supporting my family should come first." Would you care to guess the gender of this student?

I conducted a little experiment once and asked my students whether being unemployed and unable to support a family would be detrimental to their gender identity. "Would you feel less of a woman / less of a man in this case?" I asked. Would you like to venture a guess as to how the answers varied according to the students' gender?

Men are schooled to think that they are not really men if they don't spend their entire lives dragging around the burden of being financially responsible not only for themselves but for a bunch of other people as well. And as central as her career might be for a woman, job loss, while undeniably traumatic, does not endanger her gender identity. When my Visiting Professor contract was about to run out and no new job offers were forthcoming, I felt like a professional and academic failure. I did not, however, feel any less of a woman. If my inability to find a job at that point had hurt not only my professional sense of self but also my gender identity, the resulting stress would have obviously been even more difficult to deal with.

Since we are talking about trauma, patriarchal societies offer women more ways of dealing with traumatic events productively. Whenever anything bad happens, I can turn to my group of firends and verbalize every single little thing that happened and that I feel as a result or might feel in the future. Then, I can repeat my sad story as many times as I need in order to heal, without any fear of being considered deficient in terms of my gender identity. And men? How can they deal with trauma without being accused of being wimpy, girly, or anything similar? Well, as we have seen in the quote that opened this post, they always have alcohol. Or violence. Do I need to point out that neither of these outlets is very conducive to improving one's life expectancy?

This is not a let's-pity-poor-miserable-men post. This patriarchal system was put - and kept - in place by both men and women and it benefits both men and women, albeit in different ways. I believe, however, that, ultimately, we all end up losing a lot more than we gain as a result of patriarchal gender roles. So maybe we should just stop, you know? Scrap this ridiculous, unwieldy system that cannibalizes our lives and stop organizing our lives in terms of something as inherently meaningless as gender.


Pagan Topologist said...

There is a related factor here, which is related. If I die without ever retiring, my TIAA-CREF accumulations will make my wife and daughters far better off financially than if I retire and use them up. I have no intention of retiring anytime soon, but it does seem as though staying alive beyond that point would be unreasonably selfish. I would not take my own life, but the motivation to stay alive would be significantly lessened.

Clarissa said...

That just sounds so wrong, David. I hope you don't mean it that way. No amount of money is more valuable that the life of a loved one.

sarcozona said...

I think what Pagan Topologist's comment shows is that once a man stops working he may have more value (in the eyes of the system - not his loved ones') dead than alive.

geo said...

Hi - I'd like you refer you to the statistical data references in my November 10, 2008 blog entry at:

Us males have higher mortality rates at least in the U.S. at all age levels including our first years of our lives. The highest rates in proportion to women come in our teen and the first part of our 20's period - when testosterone probably has its biggest effects.

While minority males die earlier than white males, race, alone doesn't explain the gender differences.

Basically, though, we are the "weaker gender". It seems like our genetic weaknesses are exacerbated by our behaviors. Biologically, I'd guess it may relate to the fact that until recent times women died in childbirth in substantial numbers (countered somewhat perhaps by men dying in wars).


Clarissa said...

"I think what Pagan Topologist's comment shows is that once a man stops working he may have more value (in the eyes of the system - not his loved ones') dead than alive. "

-Well, then that's completely horrible.

fairykarma said...

What? There are plenty of avenues for men to cool off. Sports, alone time, long solo drives, hobbies, writing. Men discuss their sorrows with other men too.

I refuse to believe talking is the only way to "heal".

Alcohol, drugs and violence are methods used by both men and women to cope. Men hold the monopoly, but I'm pretty sure women are catching up. I dream of the day talking is as effective as alcohol at numbing the exhaustion of a 60+ hr. work week plus family obligations.

Clarissa said...

Of course, talking is not the only way. However, a lifetime of repressing emotions can hardly be good for one's health.

Maybe anonymous blogging will be part of a solution.

sarcozona said...

I agree, Clarissa, that it is completely horrible! The mystery is why so many men are anti-feminism when they stand to gain so much!

cringe-all said...

reminded me of this :