It has been my absolute pleasure for the past two years to blog with Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. I hope what I have shared through my blogs has met the goal of being both diverse and educational while providing helpful information on health. As the blogs here move in a different direction, I will also be moving on. As my last blog post, I want to leave you with a challenge – a challenge that, in the spirit of this blog, is at the intersection of diversity, education and health, and, I believe that, if accepted, can help initiate change we are sorely in need of today. The challenge is based on a question that I have asked myself on and off throughout my life. This question has been on my mind more and more recently as a result of the political and social climate in the US and my work focused on women’s health. The question?
“Who is the ‘weaker sex?’”
For those who know me, I’m always asking questions, challenging norms. Especially interesting to me are questions that challenge norms regarding my identity, how I think and feel in relation to others, how others perceive me and how I perceive them. As a woman, I have been and always will be both professionally and personally invested in this question.
The definition of women as the “weaker sex” appears to be an extremely narrow perception/point of view based on the average man’s physical (muscular) size and strength compared to the average woman. When you broaden the definition of strong (or weak) and look at the data available for a complete set of strengths (or lack thereof), you reach a very different conclusion.
Using a broader definition of physical health alone, research proves women as the stronger sex. Studies show a consistent gender gap in health favoring women and that women, on average,
… live longer,
… suffer less and die less frequently from chronic diseases and health conditions,
… do annual checkups and physicals more frequently, and
… have a higher pain tolerance.
And the health gap is not the only gap favoring women as the stronger sex. Recent studies on educational achievement prove that there is a similar education gender gap. Since the mid 90’s, women, on average,
…get better grades,
…graduate high school and attend college at a higher rate, and
…get more advanced degrees.
On a personal note, one of my male friends from college always tells the story that my best friend and I (two women) got him through our engineering major at Stanford.
In addition to a consistent health gap and an emerging education gap, hormonal factors are also known to favor women. Men’s lower estrogen levels and higher incidence of work stress, anger, hostility and social isolation increases premature heart disease risk while their higher testosterone levels increase aggressive and risk-taking behaviors. While writing this, I asked two male friends what they thought of the premise that men were the weaker sex. They actually both agreed, saying it made sense because – and I quote them both on two separate occasions – “men do more stupid shit.”
Yet, despite these potentially harmful biological, social and behavioral qualities, men are still viewed as “stronger.” Despite evidence to the contrary, women continue to be referred to (and treated) as the “weaker sex.” And despite #MeToo and #TimesUp (perhaps even in response to?) the current business, political and social environment in the U.S. still strongly reflects this (MIS-)perception. Women continue to be underestimated and underrepresented on corporate boards and in executive suites but also in higher education and federal and state government leadership roles. News coverage of women candidates for President of the U.S. has been little to none.
Like women, the impact of this MISperception is underestimated. The current still-male-dominated environment is based in and exploitative of fear, aggressive, competitive behaviors and petty anger and hostility. How different would things be if we lined up our reality with the data? With the #facts? Women’s strengths in key areas offer society invaluable opportunities. What if the healthier, more educated and reasoning women were given more opportunities to be their authentic selves in positions of leadership and power? What if we redefined “stronger” and “weaker” to incorporate more qualities and attributes than just physical size and strength?
Change is needed. It is incorrect to define women as the “weaker sex” when we define it based on a more complete set of beneficial qualities and attributes, i.e. strengths. I challenge all of us (both men and women) to 1) broaden our definition of strength and 2) challenge our personal notions of the strength that is needed in our current context. Given our strengths, women are the “stronger sex” in the areas most well suited for taking us literally and figuratively into a new, improved age. As it’s known on social media and in digital parlance, #facts.
Based in Atlanta, Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness educator, presenter and author of “GET A GGRiPP: The Health and Wellness Movement Rooted in Black Cultural Traditions.” Her company, EmBODY WELL, provides practical innovations for individual, group and organizational health and wellness. She is also co-host of the podcast No Stupid Questions. This is her final column for Diverse. Check her out at embodywell.com and nostupidquestionsshow.com!