Cover: Gender Differences in Health Among U.S. Service Members

Gender Differences in Health Among U.S. Service Members

Unwanted Gender-Based Experiences as an Explanatory Factor

Published Apr 4, 2022

by Lisa H. Jaycox, Andrew R. Morral, Amy Street, Terry L. Schell, Dean Kilpatrick, Linda Cottrell

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Research Question

  1. Among military service members, how do experiences of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault correlate with general health, symptoms of depression, and symptoms of PTSD?

Women serving in the U.S. military are more likely to report mental health problems than men, including symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women also experience much higher rates of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and sexual assault than men. This report examines how unwanted gender-based experiences among military service members relate to differences in health.

The authors find that, once experiences of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are accounted for, gender differences in health are largely attenuated. That is, the vulnerability to physical and mental health problems among female service members appears to be highly correlated with these unwanted gender-based experiences. The results highlight the possible health benefits of improved prevention of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and they indicate the need to address the mental and physical health of service members exposed to these types of experiences.

Key Findings

  • Female service members report unwanted gender-based experiences—sexual harassment, sexual assault, and gender discrimination—at rates three to six times higher than male service members.
  • When demographic and workplace variables are controlled for, female service members are significantly more likely than their male counterparts to report worse physical health, more depressive symptoms, higher likelihood of lifetime trauma, and higher levels of PTSD symptoms.
  • Exposure to unwanted gender-based experiences explains virtually all of the gender differences in depression and PTSD symptoms, as well as overall health ratings.
  • Past-year sexual harassment had the greatest unique explanatory power for physical health, and past-year sexual harassment and gender discrimination explained the most variance for depressive symptoms; all three unwanted gender-based experiences explained a significant amount of the variance in PTSD symptoms and completely attenuated the gender effect for PTSD symptoms.
  • If sexual harassment and gender discrimination are elevating symptoms of ill health among a large portion of the military workforce, this suggests a strong rationale for investing greater attention and resources into preventing sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and for providing care to those who have experienced them.

This research was sponsored by the Psychological Health Center of Excellence and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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