Growing up unequal: Young women’s health and wellbeing


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Content type
Short article

April 2018


Growing up unequal: How sex and gender impact young women’s health and wellbeing is the most recent issues paper by Women’s Health Victoria. The report brings together recent research and examples of promising practice to explore the health and wellbeing of young women. The report is the 12th issues paper by Women’s Health Victoria and covers six areas that are central to the health and wellbeing of young women:

  • Physical health
  • Sexual and reproductive health
  • Body image
  • Relationships
  • Mental health
  • Social inclusion and participation.

The report focuses on young women aged 10–20 years. It identifies this group as a gap in the existing research and suggests that much of the existing literature focuses on “young people” or “women” as singular groups, so that the gendered experiences of young women are not examined (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017). While the report focuses on this group of young women, it acknowledges that young men are also negatively impacted by gendered stereotypes, and that the health and wellbeing of young trans, non-binary and gender questioning people is an under-researched area.

Different outcomes for young men and young women

Young men and young women experience different expectations and pressures as they move through adolescence, which result in different health and wellbeing outcomes. For example, young women:

  • are more likely to self-harm than young men
  • do more housework and receive less pocket money than young men, and
  • are more likely to have restricted movement outside the home due to fears of violence and harassment (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017).

The report provides a multi-dimensional view of the gendered experiences of young women that lead to these differential outcomes. Much existing research focuses on single, isolated risk factors or experiences (such as eating disorders or sexual health) without exploring how these risk factors or experiences are experienced holistically by young women (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017).  

Growing up unequal uses an intersectional lens that acknowledges gender is one of several factors that shape life experiences and outcomes for young women. Class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, (dis)ability, geographical location and community are all important factors that shape the experiences of young women, resulting in different health and wellbeing outcomes as some young women are afforded greater privilege, while others live in relative disadvantage (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017). 

The report determines that the health and wellbeing of young women is driven in many cases by unequal gender norms, practices and structures (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017). These can come from different places – parents, teachers, health or social professionals, other adults or the media – and can be conscious or unconscious. For example, gender norms can limit young women’s options for study and work through gendered ideas about what skills or activities are appropriate for young women, or can limit young women’s freedom and autonomy through gendered ideas about risk perception (Webster, Anderson, & Barr, 2017). The report concludes with seven recommendations for policy makers, practitioners and educators to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for young women. 


Webster, A., Anderson, R., & Barr, M. (2017). Growing up unequal: How sex and gender impact young women’s health and wellbeing(Women’s health issues paper No. 12). Melbourne: Women’s Health Victoria.