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Soc Sci Med. 2004 Nov;59(9):1925-36.

Gender differences in the relationship of partner's social class to behavioural risk factors and social support in the Whitehall II study.

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  • 1Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, International Center for Health and Society, University College London, 1-19 Torrington Place, London WCIE 6BT, UK.


In most countries health inequality in women appears to be greater when their socio-economic position is measured according to the occupation of male partners or spouses than the women's own occupations. Very few studies show social gradients in men's health according to the occupation of their female partners. This paper aims to explore the reasons for the differences in social inequality in cardiovascular disease between men and women by analysing the associations between own or spouses (or partners) socio-economic position and a set of risk factors for prevalent chronic diseases. Study participants were married or cohabiting London based civil servants included in the Whitehall II study. Socio-economic position of study participants was measured according to civil service grade; socio-economic position of the spouses and partners according to the Registrar General's social class schema. Risk factors were smoking, diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and measures of social support. In no case was risk factor exposure more affected by the socio-economic position of a female partner than that of a male study participant. Wives' social class membership made no difference at all to the likelihood that male Whitehall participants were smokers, or took little exercise. Female participants' exercise and particularly smoking habit was, in contrast, related to their spouse's social class independently of their own grade of employment. Diet quality was affected equally by the socio-economic position of both male and female partners. Unlike the behavioural risk factors, the degree of social support reported by women participants was in general not strongly negatively affected by their husband or partner being in a less advantaged social class. However, non-employment in the husband or partner was associated with relatively lower levels of positive, and higher negative social support, while men with non-working wives or partners were unaffected. Studying gender differences in health inequality highlights some of the problems in health inequality research more broadly. We are brought face to face with the fact that the development of conceptual models that can be applied consistently to aetiology in both men and women are still at an early stage of development. Closer attention is needed to the different processes behind material power and 'emotional power' within the household when investigating gender differences in health and risk factors.

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