The "Weaker Sex" and the Gender Gap

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 17, 2006

“It’s not that we ‘could be’ the weaker sex — we are the weaker sex,” said Dr. Robert Tan, one of the many health specialists that Roni Rabin interviewed for her fascinating analysis in The New York Times: “Health Disparities Persist for Men, and Doctors Ask Why.” “Even when men and women have the same disease,” Tan continues, “we often find that men are more likely to die.”

Despite this reality, however, women’s health, according to Rabin, has increasingly become the focus of both media attention and funding — or at least that’s the perception. Rabin asks provocatively at the beginning of her piece: “Is men’s health getting short shrift?”

Well — according the the creators of the new American Journal of Men’s Health (which will publish its first issue in March), the Men’s Health Network, an education foundation, and the Congressional sponsors of the new bill aimed at creating a federal office of men’s health to mirror the office on women’s health within the Health and Human Services Department — men’s health has been sorely neglected.

Cynthia Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, disagrees. “Saying we need an office of men’s health ignores the fact that men’s health always was the main focus of medical research,” said Pearson.

“During the first half-century of our nation’s investment in medical research, the majority of resources went to studying men and the conditions that affected men disproportionately,” Pearson added. “Is their health perfect? No. But they don’t need a movement.”

Certain facts, Rabin points out, are irrefutable: “American men have an average life expectancy of 75.2 years, and even less — 69.8 years — for black men, compared with 80.4 years for women over all”

But whether that indicates a lack of attention to men’s health is much less clear:

Behavior plays a role in some of the extra deaths and illnesses among men: they tend to be more aggressive than women and to take more risks. Men smoke at higher rates than women, drink more alcohol and are less likely to wear seat belts or use sunscreen. Men also suffer more accidental deaths and serious injuries and are more likely to die of injuries and car accidents. They are three times as likely to be victims of murder, four times as likely to commit suicide and, as teenagers, 11 times as likely to drown.

And then there’s this interesting fact:

Research based on a 2000 survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that almost a quarter of all men had not seen a doctor during the previous year, compared with only 8 percent of women, and that one in three men had no regular doctor, compared with one in five women.

Of course, Rabin points out, this doesn’t explain the fact that male fetuses are at greater risk of stillbirth and miscarriage and that infant mortality is higher among newborn boys and premature baby boys.

From my perspective, however, to blame the lower life-expectancy and other male health issues on the emergence of women’s health departments and the success of the breast cancer awareness movement sounds more like a reactionary move motivated by age-old fears and prejudice rather than an actual solution.

Plus: Well, at least we can definitely say that men are not being neglected after they die. Timothy J. McNulty, the “public editor” of the Chicago Tribune, discusses the jarring gender gap that persists on the Tribune’s (and other papers’) obituary pages. So far this year, 73 percent of the obits are about males.

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