Paradoxically, the response to the recent women’s health survey has not been all good for feminists. Instead, it has led to a focus on the health inequalities facing men and recognition, in some quarters at least, that the gender health gap benefits women. Journalists have adopted two approaches to this problem. One is to blame men for health inequalities that affect them while attributing health inequalities affecting women to structural failings in our health service. The other approach is denial. The article featured below appeared in the Guardian on August 3rd and adopted the latter tactic. You can find the article here or click on the image below.
The article refers to a report that appeared in BMJ open that you can find here. The author of the Guardian article, Nadheem Badshah, doesn’t seem to have any background in health reporting and looking at his profile on muckrack he seems to be a general-purpose reporter and perhaps not competent to report on an academic article appearing in the BMJ open.
The content of the scientific paper does not support the Guardian headline that ‘women may not live longer than men after all – study’. According to the conclusions of the paper in BMJ open, ‘male life expectancy is generally lower than female life expectancy‘ and ‘male death rates are usually higher at all ages‘. The Guardian headline seriously misrepresents the conclusions of the study.
The study shows that there there are many confounding variables that impact the life span of men and women. These include social class, educational attainment, and marital status (contrary to feminist mythology it is not only married men who tend to live longer than their unmarried counterparts). As you would expect, there is some overlap between male and female life expectancies. Nadheem Shah points out that the life expectancy of a married man with high educational attainment may be better than that of a single woman with low educational attainment. This is true, but it tells us almost nothing useful. When you control for those confounding variables, men on average have a lower life expectancy.
The final two paragraphs of The Guardian article continue the low standard of reporting.
“These findings challenge the general impression that men do not live as long as women and reveal a more nuanced inequality in lifespans between females and males.”
The findings do not challenge ‘the general impression that men do not live as long as women‘ they confirm that general impression. The idea that factors other than sex impact on longevity is hardly new or surprising. Nadheem Shah goes on to write,
The academics suggested that a better measure could be to examine the lifespan of both genders in different countries.
Well yes. But that is what we do now. We don’t compare the life expectancy of men in Venezuela with women in Japan because that would tell us nothing useful.
To be fair to The Guardian, I think the authors of the ‘scientific study’ have sought to mislead and their paper contains the bizarre paragraph below.
However, one might ask if a wider overlapping is necessarily better for healthcare systems. On the one hand, a larger overlapping means less inequality between sexes, but on its own it does not ensure that there is more ‘health justice’.
What the authors appear to be saying is that reducing inequality in life expectancy between men and women would not necessarily constitute ‘health justice’. That concept of ‘health justice’ seems very vague and ‘slippery’. Who gets to decide what level of inequality constitutes optimum health justice? I certainly wouldn’t trust the WHO or feminist academics to adjudicate on that matter.
A nuanced approach to health could help men and might be a way of flying in changes ‘under the radar’ without attracting the ire of the misandrists in the media. For example, the effects of socioeconomic deprivation weigh more heavily on men than women (see APPG video The Case for a Men’s Health Strategy). For that reason, if we concentrate our resources on the most deprived populations, we will lift both men and women but have a disproportionate effect on men, thus helping to close the gender health gap as well as the social class health gap. Similarly, educational attainment has beneficial effects on health. Because we now have an education system that is failing boys, that will lead to greater health inequalities in the future. Our rigged education system requires urgent attention and that should, over the long term, help close the gender health gap.
Finally, men are blamed for failing to access health services often enough – they are, it is claimed, the architects of their poor outcomes. This is wrong, once you correct for the confounding variable of full-time work the difference in consultation rates vanishes. Women are more likely than men to work part-time and closer to home. Nonetheless, there are women who encounter the same difficulties as men and making health care more accessible to full-time workers, irrespective of sex will also help to close the gender health gap.
In future, let’s hope we can have a more sophisticated and balanced debate in the media rather than feminist slogan chucking. I am not optimistic about finding that kind of debate in the pages of the Guardian