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Soc Sci Med. 2008 Sep;67(5):808-16. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.05.009. Epub 2008 Jun 14.

The weaker sex? Exploring lay understandings of gender differences in life expectancy: a qualitative study.

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MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, 4 Lilybank Gardens, Glasgow, G12 8RZ, UK.


Despite increasing interest in gender and health, 'lay' perceptions of gender differences in mortality have been neglected. Drawing on semi-structured interview data from 45 men and women in two age cohorts (born in the early 1950s and 1970s) in the UK, we investigated lay explanations for women's longer life expectancy. Our data suggest that respondents were aware of women's increased longevity, but found this difficult to explain. While many accounts were multifactorial, socio-cultural explanations were more common, more detailed and less tentative than biological explanations. Different socio-cultural explanations (i.e. gendered social roles, 'macho' constraints on men and gender differences in health-related behaviours) were linked by the perception that life expectancy would converge as men and women's lives became more similar. Health behaviours such as going to the doctor or drinking alcohol were often located within wider structural contexts. Female respondents were more likely to focus on women's reproductive and caring roles, while male respondents were more likely to focus on how men were disadvantaged by their 'provider' role. We locate these narratives within academic debates about conceptualising gender: e.g. 'gender as structure' versus 'gender as performance', 'gender as difference' versus 'gender as diversity'.

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