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Connecting the dots: Hillary Clinton, a glass ceiling, and our health

Why should we care about Hillary Clinton's crack in the glass ceiling? Because of the gender disparity's impact on women’s and children’s health.

So what?

Here's why it's important to us: Gender disparity impacts women's and children's health.

Statistics tell the story.

Take poverty, which is one of the most significant determinants of how long you live and how well you are. Right now women working full-time, on average, make 79% of what men make. Hispanic women make 54% of what white men make. African-American women, make 63%. Women also make significantly less than men of the same race or ethnicity.  Women living in poverty outnumber men.  In 2014, 22% of the nation's children lived in poverty, and 30% of children lived in families where no parent had full-time employment.

The numbers also tell a deeper story about how discrimination, both structural (the barriers facing women and girls in society) and social (how  our culture and behavior reflect and reinforce the way our society treats women and girls vs. men and boys).

Gender discrimination or sexism is especially harmful to young girls. It  can manifest in a variety of ways. Among them: a damaging impact on overall mental health and a long-term negative impact on occupational choices, which leads to fewer economic opportunities, lower earnings, greater likelihood of poverty, and so on.

For example: A recent study published by scientists at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health builds on longstanding data showing that income can be a predictor of both mental and physical health outcomes. Individuals with lower incomes are, in general, less healthy. The wage gap makes it worse. The Columbia data suggest that laws barring workplace gender discrimination have not addressed what the researchers call "less conspicuous forms of structural discrimination," including the wage gap and concerns over promotions and allocation of tasks. Those have both material consequences (lower incomes) and psychosocial ones (more stress, which may lead to increased symptoms of depression and anxiety). The authors make this point by showing that, even when controlling for "education, occupation, age, and other factors related to wages," women have "increased odds of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder … relative to men." The scientists also found that "the gender disparity in depression and anxiety disorders observed is significantly greater when women make less than male counterparts in the workforce."

Other studies have shown that narrowing the wage gap and empowering women economically can decrease intimate partner violence. The benefits can last for generations, as children are often direct or indirect victims of domestic violence, and—as we have described in a series of previous posts—carry those experiences into adulthood.

Playing politics with women's health has resulted in women losing access to reproductive health services. With state elected officials working to prevent access to safe, legal abortions, women are forced to undergo the risks and bear the consequences of unintended or undesired pregnancies or seek out unsafe, dangerous procedures. Defunding Planned Parenthood, as some elected officials demand, because some of its facilities provide abortions, means less health care for 650,000 women according to a 2015 report from the Congressional Budget Office.

Women, especially low income women, need more health services, not less. Even with 20 million Americans gaining access to health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, disparities remain. While 77% of women over 40 in households at 400% or more of the federal poverty level had a mammogram for breast cancer screening in 2013, only 50% of women at or below the poverty level had one. The rates for pap smears to screen for cervical cancer reflected similar disparities by income as well as by race: 85% of women at 400% or more of the poverty level  had the test, compared with 69% of those living at or below the poverty level.

While the symbolism of a woman in the Oval Office—and the bully pulpit of the presidency—would be powerful agents of change, there's hard work ahead.  Smashing the glass ceiling can inspire millions; breaking down the structural barriers to equality—closing the wage gap, expanding access to women's healthcare, and protecting women from discrimination in the workplace and beyond—will be a long and difficult fight.

The fight began long ago. Regardless of who ultimately wins the presidency, it is a battle that must be continued to better not just women's health, but the public's health.

Read more about The Public's Health.