Structural Sexism and Health in the United States

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In this dissertation, I seek to begin building a new line of health inequality research that parallels the emerging structural racism literature by developing theory and measurement for the new concept of structural sexism and examining its relationship to health. Consistent with contemporary theories of gender as a multilevel social system, I conceptualize and measure structural sexism as systematic gender inequality in power and resources at the macro-level (U.S. state), meso-level (marital dyad), and micro-level (individual). Through a series of quantitative analyses, I examine how various measures of structural sexism affect the health of men, women, and infants in the U.S.

Chapter 2 focuses exclusively on the macro-level and drills down on a single indicator of structural sexism: political gender inequality. Using data compiled from several administrative sources across a twenty-two-year period, I find that women’s political representation in U.S. state legislatures is as strong —or stronger—a predictor of state infant mortality rates than even the state’s poverty level. This relationship holds both between states with varied levels of political gender inequality in a given year, and within the majority of states as women’s representation changes over time. To quantify the population-level costs, I estimate that women’s continued underrepresentation in legislative office was associated with nearly 3,500 excess infant deaths per year in the U.S. compared to what would be expected under conditions of gender parity.

Chapter 3 lays out a more comprehensive, multilevel framework for structural sexism and examines how it shapes the health of women and men at midlife. I measure macro-level structural sexism at the U.S. state-level using indicators of inequality in political, economic, cultural and reproductive domains. Using restricted geo-coded data from the NLSY79, individuals are located within states to capture their exposure to structural sexism. This chapter also incorporates individual- and spousal-level data from the NLSY79 in order to measure exposure to structural sexism at the meso- and micro-levels. Results show that among women exposure to more sexism at the macro- and meso-levels is associated with more chronic conditions, worse self-rated health, and worse physical functioning. Among men, macro-level structural sexism is also associated with worse health. However, at the meso-level greater structural sexism is associated with better health among men. At the micro-level, internalized sexism is not related to health among either women or men. These results highlight the importance of a multilevel approach.

As a whole, this work demonstrates that structural sexism takes a substantial toll on population health in the U.S. The findings also illustrate that effects of structural sexism on health depend both on an individual’s position within the gender system and the level at which sexism exposures are measured. Further research is needed to extend our understanding of how structural sexism shapes health across the life course.






Homan, Patricia (2018). Structural Sexism and Health in the United States. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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