The impact of sexism on mental health

Structural issues such as sexism need to be tackled in order to make a lasting impact on young women’s mental health, according to a leading activist.

silhouette of a person with grey paper scrunched up around to depict depression


The impact of sexism on young women’s mental health needs to be better understood, a leading activist told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work.

Sophie Walker from the Young Women’s Trust said there was too much focus on trying to fix individual women and improve their confidence and resilience rather than to address structural issues like sexism that lie behind mental health problems. And she added that, while it was good to share what progressive employers were doing on mental health, it should not be forgotten that many were breaking the law and discriminating against women. This needed to be cracked down on. Moreover, she said 10 years of austerity had hit women particularly hard, again with implications for their mental health.

Walker said research showed young women who had experienced sexism were five times more likely to suffer from clinical depression and that the impact could still be seen several years on. They were more likely to be exposed to sexism than other women, whether at school, at work or in public spaces, perhaps because they were perceived as easier targets, said Walker. Partly this was due to greater awareness of sexism and. More young women also now identified as feminists.

More than one in five young women said mental ill health affected their relationships and their ability to stay in work, especially those who worked in low paid jobs with those from ethnic minorities the most adversely affected. Suicide was at the highest level ever for young women and many who experienced mental health had already done so before they reached the age of 24.

In addition to greater understanding about the impact of sexism on young women, Walker called for the provision of single sex spaces for young women to talk about the issues affecting them, for employers to robustly address issues that affect women’s mental health at work, including sexual harassment, and for a  recognition of the range of ways sexism affects women, including economic and domestic abuse.

The difference support makes

Georgia Webb, who is on the Young Women’s Trust Advisory Board, spoke of her own experience of mental ill health, the result of losing a parent, taking a succession of low paid dead-end jobs to support her studies and problems with debt. She managed to get herself out of the anxiety and depression she was suffering after being taken on as an engineering apprentice by a company which supported her with mentors and networking opportunities and enabled her to speak out about her well being and cared about employees’ work life balance. Being a member of the Young Women’s Trust has also helped her.

The Trust is working on a young women’s manifesto which would tackle everything from sexist toys and attitudes on the playground to the uneven care burden that falls on women. Sophie Walker added that more work needed to be done to value women’s unpaid care work and so-called soft skills and she suggested gender equality could be part of the school curriculum.

Carers and prevention

Other speakers at the APPG event included Andrea Barrett from Centrica who spoke about the company’s approach to carers, including the offer of up to six weeks of carers’ leave, a carers network, the provision of mental health first aiders and a carer’s passport so that people can move around the business and information on their working pattern will follow them. She said the policies were backed by a strong business case which showed the impact on retention and presenteeism and absenteeism figures.

Sarah Tite from the Mental Health Foundation spoke about the Foundation’s work on preventing mental ill health, their current focus on sleep and about the foundation’s own policies for protecting the mental health of their employees, including the provision of three personal well being days which promote self care. These are not the same as annual leave and do not have to be agreed with managers. She said people needed to start seeing mental health as an asset rather than a problem and that senior managers needed to model good practice.

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