This is the seventh in a series of posts which I have written alongside a module I will be teaching which is intended to help non-sociology students to gain an understanding of the sociology of health and illness. While these posts are primarily intended for that audience and are therefore intentionally introductory there might be something of interest to a more general audience. For that reason I have decided to put them on my blog in amongst more specific and specialist writings.

The sociology of gender has demonstrated that there are both structural and subjective differences affecting the lives of men and women. The purpose of this area of analysis is not to show that things are always worse for women but that social forms of all kinds position and impact on men and women differently. It is also crucial to remember that there are big differences “within” the groups of women and men as well as “between” the groups.

That is, women might find their life chances to be different to those of other women but some of these differences are still predicated on the fact that they are women. Just because some women, or some men, have managed to overcome the structural factors which might hold them back does not mean they are not incredibly powerful for other members of their gender.

There are perhaps two main strands of the sociology of gender (although in reality these two are probably more similar than they are different); feminism and masculinities studies.

Feminist work has often investigated the inequalities between men and women and in particular the differences in:

  • Pay, opportunities, educational attainment, social expectations, health outcomes
  • Social roles and expectations
  • Identity and sense of self constituted through gender
  • Societal responses to behaviour or appearance which help to shape our sense of self

Perhaps the most fundamental insight of gender studies is that which problematizes the connection between sex and gender. While in everyday language people often assume sex and gender mean pretty much the same thing the sociology of gender makes an important distinction:

  • Sex – biological, physical differences
  • Gender – social expectations built on biological differences

When gendered behaviours or traits are considered to be a characteristic of a particular sex this is referred to as “essentialisation”. While gender may be considered to be a social construction this does not mean that people do not feel real effects of being classified as one or the other. This is because gender is a social structure which constrains and enables particular kinds of behaviours.

One way in which we can see the impact of social structures on gender (and differences within genders) is through comparing health outcomes.

Click to access HSE2013-Ch10-Adult-anth-meas.pdf

Obesity gender

The charts above show rates of obesity and overweight for men and women in relation to household income. While there are higher rates of obesity and overweight across the board for men (except for those on the lowest income which are about even) women’s overweight and obesity is much more affected by income. In short, the poorer a woman is the more likely she is to be obese or overweight.

These differences could be for several reasons including that women tend to be hit harder by economic inequalities than men (so any economic impacts will be increased). The differences may also be related to cultural factors such as the greater emphasis which is placed on appearance in social assessments of women and the cultural connection between women and food. Perhaps wealthier women are more able to dedicate resources to reducing their weight and less wealthy women are more likely to seek comfort in food when faced with difficulties associated with economic deprivation.

In the next post I will look at some of the ways in which issues around ethnicity intersect with health and illness.