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How do social structures affect the lives and behavior of women?

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I think the best way to approach this question is to think of broad social structures and then narrow down the ways that gender is both reinforced and affected by them. I will give some examples that will be a helpful start in considering social structures and their impact on women. Before that, we need to start from an understanding that institutions and social structures are gendered and affect populations differently.

Let's start with medicine. The medical field is highly gendered and has direct and clear impacts on the life expectancy of women. Numerous studies highlight the ways in which medical professionals take the pain of women less seriously. From a historical context, mental illness in women has often been written off as hysterics and thus was never treated in the way that it should have been. Women are also less likely to be diagnosed with issues like ADHD, which leads to their condition not being treated. This means oftentimes women learn to manage pain differently than men and are more likely to go with chronic pain and other health conditions undiagnosed and untreated. It is also important to look at the way race also affects this—the mortality rate for black women and black infants is much higher than any other group. If health issues are taken less seriously when they come from women, women are more likely to shift their behavior in ways that mean they live with more pain and illness.

If we look at government, we can see how this structure directly impacts the lives of women. Currently, 19.4% of Congress is female, with women making up roughly half of the American population. What this means is that the specific interests and needs of women cannot be met, because they are not accurately represented. This leads to laws that disproportionately affect women negatively or do not address them at all. For example, laws require police to make an arrest while on a domestic violence call—which, on paper, sounds nice. But these laws ignore the facts that show that women in these situations are often reliant on these men economically since the structures of abuse often require the victim to be dependent on the abuser. When an arrest is made, it leaves the woman without the ability to care for herself or her children. Combined with the lack of adequate social structures in place to help women who are victims of domestic violence, laws like this make it much more likely for women to enter other abusive relationships and sometimes lethal situations.

When we look at the social structure of the family, it is clear that women have to navigate difficult situations. More often than not, a woman is expected to be the caretaker of the family. This means 1) she is more likely to ignore her specific needs and uphold the needs of others, and 2) she either has to rely on her spouse for economic stability OR she has to navigate the difficult balancing act of both a career and childcare. As a result, women are passed up for promotions and raises since it is assumed they will leave the office for motherhood at some point. In some cases, women are not even guaranteed the same job when they return and are sometimes placed in lower-paying jobs. One in four women will be a victim of severe physical violence by a partner. This is an enormous factor in shaping the behavior of women.

From these examples, we can surmise that women shift their behavior to prioritize their family over themselves, they may be less likely to apply for high-paying jobs knowing that they are less likely to get them, they may be less likely to call law enforcement if they experience intimate partner violence, and they may be less likely to share health information with their doctors.

Overall, we can see how social structures dismiss the health and well-being of women, which often leads to a lower quality of life or, in many cases, lower life expectancy.

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