Sexism linked to higher rates of depression in young women

26 November 2019

Young women who experience sexism are 5 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression, new research by Young Women Trust and University College London has found. 

The higher rate of mental ill health compares to those who said they had not experienced sexism, according to the report.

The report also calls on society and government to recognise and take seriously the impact sexism – including being attacked or threatened because of your sex –  is having on young women in the UK,  and to fully fund educational and other support services to help build a future free from violence and abuse.

The study showed the 16 to 30 age group is most likely to experience sexism at school, work, on public transport, in taxis and outside of the home – and at higher rates than other ages, with 82 percent of those who had experienced sexism saying they had been subjected to street harassment.

Those women aged 16 to 30 who had experienced sexism – including attacks or threats –  reported greater psychological distress even four years later, indicating the devastating impact on mental health over time, particularly for young women.

Young Women’s Trust Chief Executive Sophie Walker, said:

“This study shows a clear and damaging link between sexism and young women’s mental health. While women of all ages continue to experience sexism, this research shows that it is young women who are most affected.

“What too often is dismissed as young women lacking confidence is in reality a crisis in mental health caused by a sexist society. Sexism is deeply affecting young women’s lives, their economic freedom and their health. That’s why the next Government must take urgent and concerted action to prevent yet more young women from experiencing sexual harassment and abuse, and the long-term harm this can cause.”

Young Women’s Trust worked with Dr Ruth Hackett from University College London (UCL) on the study, and sexism was defined in the survey as feeling unsafe, avoiding going to/being in a setting, being insulted and/or threatened, or being physically attacked because of sex.

The report, which surveyed 2995 16 to 93 year olds including 1,041 16 to 30 year olds, combines analysis of a large UK dataset with first-hand experiences and views from young women. As one of the young women reported:

“In my personal experience, I have struggled with both stress and anxiety in part as a result of the sexism I experienced within the workplace. I dreaded going to work every morning, and it took its toll on both my mental and physical health, and I became a shell of the person I once was.”

Added Young Women’s Trust Chief Executive Sophie Walker: 

“It’s not just about recognition of the damage sexism inflicts. We need mainstream services supporting young women experiencing mental ill health from having sexism thrown in their faces day after day to be able to sensitively ask them about their experiences of sexist discrimination, abuse and violence, and then provide appropriate support and signposting.

“Mixed sex adult mental health services are often not accessible or appropriate. There is a need for more specialist young women’s mental health services, alongside investment in vital services to address violence against young women and girls.

“We need to prevent mental health impacts continuing for years into young women’s adult lives. As one of our Advisory Panel Members highlighted in the report, ‘sexism sits in the core of you and if you try and ignore it and don’t address it, it rots away and the problems permeate to other areas of your life’.”

Note to editors

The report’s findings and research material are available in the study Impact of Sexism on Young Women’s Mental Health

Young Women’s Trust in coalition with other women’s charities have launched a manifesto for women and girls that calls for a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Bill that will fully ratify the Istanbul Convention. The Manifesto recognises that we need to create a future free from violence and abuse for girls and young women including ‘high quality relationships and sex education, tackling the endemic sexual harassment and violence in schools and sexism in society.’

  • Introducing a Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Bill that will fully ratify the Istanbul Convention3 and include a comprehensive framework of equal protection and support for all victims/survivors of domestic and, sexual violence and abuse, as well as all other forms of VAWG without discrimination on any grounds, including nation or migrant status.
  • Equipping public services to respond to survivors of abuse. We need a statutory duty on public authorities to ensure frontline staff are trained to make enquiries about VAWG can provide pathways to specialist trauma informed support and services – mirroring requirements in Wales. All nations need sufficient and sustainable investment in specialist services and investment in training and referral pathways.
  • Creating a future free from violence and abuse by fully funding the roll-out of high quality relationships and sex education, tackling the endemic sexual harassment and violence in schools and sexism in society.
  • Taking action on domestic and sexual violence at work and at home. Over half of women5 in the UK still experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is in addition to violence or abuse faced by some women in the home.
  • The International Labour Organisation Convention 190 on Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work6 is a legally binding document which improves protections for all workers facing violence and harassment. We are calling on the UK government to lead the way in ratifying the Convention as soon as possible. In addition, employers ought to be required to provide victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence with flexible working arrangements, including paid leave.
  • Delivering a secure funding future for specialist domestic and sexual violence services that ensures no victim/survivor is turned away from the support they need. This includes working with all UK governments to ensure sustainable funding for life-saving women’s refuges, guaranteed access to specialist, trauma informed therapeutic support and counselling for survivors of sexual abuse, and national ring-fenced funding for specialist ‘by and for’ led Black and Minoritised women’s services.
  • Ensuring the new duty of care on online companies to protect their users includes tackling sexual harassment, bullying and violence that disproportionally affects girls and women, and ensuring online safety for all women and girls, acknowledging
  • Introduction of a legal duty on employers to take proactive action to prevent harassment happening in their workplaces. The EHRC and other regulators should be funded to enforce this. This would stop the burden currently placed on women to report harassment to their employer after it has happened or take a case in the courts.