Skip to main content

21 March 2024

Perceived gender discrimination negatively impacts mental wellbeing of older women

Experts say tackling gender discrimination is important to supporting the mental health of women at middle and older age.


New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and University College London has found that middle-aged and older women who perceive to have experienced gender discrimination report poorer mental wellbeing than those who do not.

The research, published in PLOS ONE, highlights the need to tackle gender discrimination to support the mental health of women at middle and older age.

The study analysed data from 3,081 women enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which follows a large group of respondents over the age of 52.

In 2010-11, participants answered questions about how often they experienced gender discrimination such as harassment or being treated with less respect, and whether they attributed that discrimination to their gender, or another characteristic such as race or age.

Participants also responded to questions about their mental wellbeing, once in 2010-11 and again in 2016-17.

Overall, those who perceived gender discrimination also reported more depressive symptoms, loneliness, and lower quality of life and life satisfaction. Over the six-year period between data collection, they were more likely to report declines in quality of life and life satisfaction, as well as increased loneliness.

“Our study not only finds a link between gender discrimination and poorer mental health but reveals the enduring harmful impact of sexism on women over time. These findings underline the need to provide mental health support for older women, and the importance of reducing gender discrimination against women to protect their wellbeing.”

Dr Ruth Hackett, lecturer in Health Psychology at King’s IoPPN and the study's first author

The results remain true independent of age, wealth, ethnicity, marital status, BMI, smoking and physical activity.

Researchers noted the study may be limited by its measure of gender discrimination being self-reported, and therefore based on individual perceptions of discrimination.

“Subjective interpretations of gender discrimination compared with objective encounters with gender discrimination could have differing impacts on mental wellbeing. Nevertheless, our findings support the need to reduce sexism and to promote gender equality. Indeed, there is evidence from previous research that women living in more gender equal societies tend to have better mental wellbeing.”

Professor Myra Hunter, co-author and Emeritus Professor of Clinical Health Psychology at King’s College London

The researchers say more study is needed on how perceived gender discrimination interacts with other forms of discrimination to impact on wellbeing.

This research was possible thanks to funding from the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the British Heart Foundation and the Diabetes UK Springboard Award.

The relationship between gender discrimination and wellbeing in middle-aged and older women (Ruth A Hackett, Myra S Hunter & Sarah E Jackson) (DOI10.1371/journal.pone.0299381) was published in PLOS ONE

For more information, please contact George Fenwick (Senior Communications and Engagement Officer)

In this story

Ruth Hackett

Lecturer in Health Psychology

Myra Hunter

Emeritus Professor of Clinical Health Psychology