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A gender gap that’s a matter of life and death

Canadian men die earlier than women, and it’s not biological. What’s behind this deadly gap, and why doesn’t anyone seem to care?
Happy and playful senior couple together at home. (Simone Becchetti/Stocksy)
Happy and playful senior couple together at home. (Simone Becchetti/Stocksy)
(Simone Becchetti/Stocksy)

Having waited a polite length of time for the hubbub surrounding International Women’s Day and its relentless fixation on gender gaps—wage gaps, STEM gaps, labour force participation gaps, corporate board gaps—to subside, can we please move on to a discussion about the only gender gap that’s actually a matter of life and death?

Men die earlier than women. And always have.

Today a Canadian baby boy can expect to live 79.4 years; a Canadian baby girl 83.6 years: a gap of over four years. This gap narrows slightly in old age—males who reach 65 are likely to keep living until they’re 83.7, females until 86.7—but it never goes away. “At every stage of their life cycle, males are more likely than females to die,” deadpans Statistics Canada.

A century ago the gender death gap was just two years. Men were more likely to die in accidents or war; women faced grim odds in childbirth. Dramatic improvements in women’s health care since then have led to rapid increases in female life expectancy. Without similar attention paid to male health issues, however, the gender death gap grew steadily into the 1970s, when it was a stunning seven years wide. Since then it’s shrunk to four years, mainly due to lower smoking rates for both sexes. But no one expects it will ever disappear. By 2031, StatsCan predicts the gender death gap will be about the same as it is today.

So why do men die so much earlier than women? And given the obsessive attention paid to gender gaps with far-less-fatal consequences, why is there no public day of rage given to this clearly significant and inequitable circumstance?

International Women’s Day is now an occasion for loud denunciations of gender gaps of all sorts. This year’s release from the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition is typical. “The gender wage gap impoverishes women every day,” screams its March 8 missive. “The gender pay gap is a human rights crisis which must be addressed immediately.” If so, then surely the prospect of dying several years earlier than your opposite sex peer ought to be considered an equivalent human rights crisis also in need of immediate attention.

If we adopt standard feminist analysis that considers the mere existence of any gap between the sexes to be prima facie proof of overt patriarchal discrimination, the significance and permanence of Canada’s gender death gap suggests some monstrous, unseen matriarchal conspiracy to kill men before their time. That’s absurd, of course. But when was the last time you heard anyone complain about the early demise of men?

One lonely voice prepared to raise this issue is Dan Bilsker, a psychotherapist, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the ground-breaking 2010 report “A Roadmap to Men’s Health,” which sought to bring attention to the dismissiveness given to men’s shorter life span.

“It has long been taken for granted that men have some sort of kill switch in them that takes their life away sooner than women,” says Bilsker. “This is clearly problematic.”

He points out there’s no obvious biological reason why men should be fated to die sooner than women. Rather the big three causes of male-specific mortality are: accidents, suicide, heart disease. All point to social and behavioural causations. As such, they should all be preventable. But no one seems to care very much, given assumptions about the male propensity to take too many risks, drive too fast, drink too much and ignore healthy habits.

“Ninety-seven percent of workplace deaths are men,” says Bilsker. “We just take this for granted—‘Oh, men are naturally risk-takers.’ ” But why should the notion that men will take on dangerous jobs and suffer the consequences be socially acceptable? If chambermaids suffered the same on-the-job death rate as truck drivers or loggers, there’d be a terrific outcry and immediate action, he observes: “We simply wouldn’t let it happen.”

Men also account for 80 per cent of all suicide deaths, mainly because they’re more aggressive than women in attempts on their own lives. Given such an outsized and gender-specific result, Bilsker says, “You might expect to see a substantial portion of mental health budgets dedicated to solving this. But it’s not.” Recent emphasis on prostate cancer, for example, represents “a pretty token amount” of overall health research and funding.

And men begin to suffer cardiac problems seven to nine years earlier than women, largely the result of poorer diet, greater alcohol use and the fact that older men are less physically active than their female peers.

It can be argued that across all three major causes of men dying earlier than women—accidents, suicide and heart disease—men are wholly responsible for their own early graves: male life is cheap because that’s how they act. While such an attitude probably explains the overwhelming social indifference to the gender death gap, it doesn’t make it right.

Borrowing from the feminist playbook, Bilsker argues this to be an example of ‘victim-blaming.’ “One of the important insights of feminism is that blaming the victim for their own circumstance is morally and ethically wrong,” he says. Rather than shrugging off short male life spans as ‘boys behaving badly,’ we need to change social attitudes towards maleness and find solutions that work. Above all it needs more attention.

A crucial component of any turnaround, says Bilsker, is reversing the assumption that traditional masculine characteristics such as competitiveness, aggression and high-risk tolerance are dangerous flaws that need to be corrected. Rather they should be understood as reflections of positive traits such as honour, duty and sacrifice—all components of manliness. And socially necessary. Our collective safety depends on people—from both sexes, but most often men—demonstrating these values as soldiers, police or firefighters. If we want men to take a greater interest in their own health, we first need to recognize the Y chromosome isn’t simply a self-destruct button. And men’s health shouldn’t be made to suffer for gender politics.