It is not always useful to draw definitive lines in the sand when it comes to gender. So many of the differences we find between genders are due to complex social and societal expectations, as opposed to innate differences (as critiques of the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” narrative reiterate). Moreover, most research is based on broad population averages meaning that there will always be exceptions to the rule (especially when considering other intersecting identities such as race, economic status and sexuality).
While keeping these limitations in mind, understanding the different outcomes for gender groups is a necessary first step towards equality. For example, we know that women in New Zealand are 1.4 times more likely to be experiencing psychological distress than men, after controlling for age (New Zealand Health Survey 2019/2020). And the rates of psychological distress for trans and non-binary people are at least 9 times higher than the general population, according to the available research.
The beauty (and the curse) of most research studies is that they shine a spotlight on one perspective based on the available data. So, yes – women and gender minorities suffer higher rates of psychological distress, on average. And yes – steps absolutely must be taken to provide better support for these groups around the world. But what about the good stuff? A strengths-based approach to gender and wellbeing can help us to celebrate what is already working well, and use these strengths to leverage better outcomes.
Through running our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment over the last four years, our team has been helping diverse organisations across New Zealand to measure and strengthen the wellbeing of their people. From this, we have gathered an anonymised dataset of more than 5,000 employee responses across the country (60% female) that share their key stressors, their resilience skills and their wellbeing levels. It’s part of our mission at Umbrella to give back to our community by sharing this data.
We would like to note here that the sample of those who identified themselves as sitting outside the gender binary in our sample (0.5%) was not sufficient to run statistical comparisons with the rest. As such, the following analysis is based on comparisons between women and men.
- Women report higher flourishing and life satisfaction
Drawing on work by Gerben Westerhof and Corey Keyes, wellbeing and mental illness are two related but distinct constructs. So, while psychological distress was higher for women in our sample, so too were their levels of flourishing and their satisfaction with how their life was going. It is possible for people to flourish even with symptoms of mental illness. According to our data, the finding that women, on average, experience higher flourishing is likely attributable to the relationships they form and their optimism towards the world around them.
- Women report stronger relationships
On the topic of relationships, women report stronger relationships contributing to their overall personal resilience. They are more likely to report that they can rely on others, to receive help, and to ask for help. These strong bonds allow women to emotionally lean on the people that they are close to. According to recent research, the ability to confide in others is one of the strongest protective factors against depression. It is worth celebrating that our working women are better able to hold and nurture these bonds.
- Women are more emotionally agile
Emotional agility is another key resilience skill. It encompasses the ability to experience emotions fully, to respond to them appropriately, and to use positive emotion to broaden and build our coping repertoire, as well as our “bounce back” when life is hard. It’s a strong predictor of wellbeing in life and women report higher rates of it, on average, compared to men. If you’re interested in learning more, we recommend this TED Talk by emotional agility researcher Susan David.
While the relative sizes of these differences are not large, they represent a statistically significant difference between men and women on average. Most importantly, they represent a number of strengths that we can use to build up women’s mental health and wellbeing – rather than focusing solely on the negative. This strengths-based approach allows us to acknowledge all of the many things that are working for the working women of Aotearoa. The next question is, how do we harness these strengths to address gender-based inequalities?
You can find more information on our website regarding our Wellbeing Assessment and Umbrella’s research programme and, if you’re interested in reading more about how we apply a strengths-based approach to working at Umbrella, check out our latest article.