International Day of the Girl: Get Out Your Hiking Boots

Today is International Day of the Girl. Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that these two days sit side by side on the calendar. In the world of mental health, the data are overwhelmingly clear that gender matters.

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Gender equality is associated with better public health, including mental health, for all segments of society. The good news is that few would disagree with the importance of promoting gender equity and diversity. The bad news is that we have a long way to go. So throw away those high heels and get your hiking boots on for this long journey to greater gender equity: Unpaved. Winding. Muddy. Rocky. Awesome. Breathtaking. Exhilarating.


Women’s right to vote. Only 100 years ago, women still did not have the right to vote in the US. Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. And around the world, women have the right to vote except in only a minority of countries. Why does this matter for mental health? Voting is empowering and good for our mental health. Being engaged in the political process can reduce psychological stress and improve mental health problems that stem from being economically, politically, or socially disadvantaged.


Women’s right to say hello to the C-suite. Research from McKinsey & Company shows that companies with more gender diversity are more likely to outperform on profitability and to demonstrate superior value creation. But women are still underrepresented at every level of management, especially the c-suite. In 2018, less than a quarter of c-suite executives in the United States were women. The situation is worse for women of color, who represent only four percent of c-suite executives. Around the world, numbers are similarly wanting. Women in c-suite leadership helps to cultivate a sense of belonging for other women and increases diversity of view, which is further associated with increasing employee engagement, productivity, mental health and wellbeing.


Women’s right to education. Because of sustained investment in girls’ education, we have achieved a 40% increase in secondary school enrollment among girls globally over the last forty years. But this is still not enough. According to UNESCO estimates, 130 million girls will never enter a classroom, let alone graduate from high school. Better educated women are healthier, earn higher incomes, marry later, and have healthier and better-educated families. With the right to education, women help to reduce the mental health burden of poverty by lifting up entire communities and nations.


Women’s right to say #Enough. Sexual harassment and assault are on the radar. The #MeToo movement has rendered public this widespread but often private experience of assault. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the radar is picking up way too many cases. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Globally, the rates of sexual assault vary enormously – going from single-digit estimates to more than 63% of adult women reporting an experience sexual violence. Sexual violence increases risk for mental health problems, including especially depression, anxiety and PTSD. #Enough.


100+ Innovative Women in Global Health. A few weeks ago, I wrote about 100 Innovative Women in Global Mental Health. Since then, many more women have been recommended to me as worthy of addition to the list. Yes, indeed! We will continue to add women to this list. I will never consider it complete. Rather, the idea is that no segment of society has a monopoly on innovation or leadership. In the spirit of International Day of the Girl, when we nurture and empower girls, we are are investing in a better future for all.


We see time and again that if we address gender equality, not only do women benefit, but the benefits multiply. In addition to the points above, we know that when we treat women’s depression, the next generation of kids are less likely to be depressed. When we increase access to credit for women in low-income settings, the entire local economy grows. Gender equity isn’t just for girls, so put on your hiking boots for the onward journey – unpaved, winding, muddy, rocky, awesome, breathtaking, exhilarating!


Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
[email protected]