Women and men who strongly endorse masculine traits are less susceptible to depressive symptoms compared to their less masculine counterparts, according to new research published in the Journal of Affective Disorders that examined 40 years of evidence. The findings could help explain why women face a greater risk of depression.
“The idea for this study began in 2007. Since then, our team has published a series of work referring to sex differences in emotional susceptibility and found that women are more sensitive to emotionally negative stimuli than men,” said study author Hong Li, a professor at South China Normal University and director of the Chinese Psychological Society.
“We inferred that this may be an important mechanism for the gender difference in the prevalence of depression, as women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. Therefore, we asked whether girls/women suffer from high-risk depression just because of their biological sex? We searched for answers from the past literature and found that psycho-social gender (e.g., gender role) might be an effective indicator of predicting depression susceptibility, even more accurate than biological sex, because personal emotions are easily affected by social factors.”
To examine this further, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis using 58 peer-reviewed studies published between 1978 and 2021 that included measures of depressive symptoms and gender roles.
“Given the number of studies about gender roles and depression has increased significantly over the past 40 years, and the gender role issues might have changed over time and/or vary by nation, my co-authors and I decided to systematically re-evaluate depression’s relationship with gender roles and to determine the potential moderating factors,” Li explained.
Most of the studies assessed masculinity and femininity using the Bem Sex Role Inventory or the Personality Attributes Questionnaire. Both scientific surveys have a similar format: Participants are shown a list of traits (such as “affectionate” and “independent”) and are asked to indicate how well each item describes them.
Li and his colleagues found a robust negative relationship between masculinity and depression among both men and women. In other words, individuals with high levels of masculine traits experienced lower levels of depressive symptoms compared to individuals with lower levels of masculinity. The researchers also found a weak negative relationship between feminine traits and depressive symptoms, particularly among those of higher education and those living in countries with a higher national income.
Those with high levels of both masculine and feminine traits (androgynous) were the least at risk of depressive symptoms.
“The main findings suggest that androgynous gender role traits can protect against depression, regardless of sex and age,” Li told PsyPost. “To be specific, both female and male individuals who strongly endorse masculine traits (e.g., stands up well, never give up, active, and decisive) are less susceptible to depression, and feminine traits (e.g., warm, tender, gentle, affectionate, sympathetic, and understanding) may also allow them to benefit from social support as protective factors for depression.”
“Conversely, conformity to traditional and typical gender role norms (i.e., boys/men should be strong but not warm; while girls/women should be understanding but not active) may promote distress and some mental disorders, particularly depression. Accordingly, the development of individual androgynous traits is expected to be an effective process to reduce the global prevalence of depression and gender disparity.”
“Given that gender differences in depression start to emerge during adolescence, a stronger focus on effective educational activities (including K-12 education, community, and family) should be implemented to promote and encourage androgynous gender role traits before people enter colleges and even across the life-span,” Li added.
The researchers analyzed responses from thousands of participants from around the world. But the majority of studies were conducted in highly developed countries, such as the United States, “so that results of this review may be hard to generalize to other developing nations and economically disadvantaged countries or regions,” Li said. “Additionally, participants in most of the selected studies were college students, while a relatively small number of studies contained children, adolescents, and older adults.”
“Furthermore, only one study focused on depressed patients on this topic, which may not be very convincing evidence for clinical samples like patients with physical and/ or mental disorders,” he added. “Thus, in this review, associations between gender role and depression have been understudied in terms of the age range (especially middle-aged adults) and clinical populations, which requires further investigation.”
The study, “Does gender role explain a high risk of depression? A meta-analytic review of 40 years of evidence“, was authored by Jingyuan Lin, Liye Zou, Wuji Lin, Benjamin Becker, Albert Yeung, Pim Cuijpers, and Hong Li.