New research aims to identify gender differences in injury and health risks

Mari-Len De Guzman
October 20, 2014
Written by
Oct. 21, 2014 – A Toronto scientist has launched a five-year research program that aims to look at how gender-related factors affect differences in work injury risks, return-to-work and illnesses between male and female workers.
Peter Smith, a scientist at the Institute for Work and Health (IWH), was awarded one of nine research chairs on gender, work and health funded by the Institute of Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Smith’s research will focus on issues such as: why men and women face different injury risks, whether they face different challenges in returning to work post-injury, and how work stress and chronic disease affect men and women differently.

“By engaging with leading occupational health and safety stakeholders throughout the research process, this new research knowledge will help shape the development of gender- and sex-sensitive policies and practices to improve the health of all working Canadians,” Smith said.

At the official launch of his research program, held last week at the University of Toronto’s Hart House, Smith stressed although the terms, gender and sex, are typically used interchangeably, there is a difference between them.

He explained “gender” refers to socially constructed roles, relationships, behaviours and other traits attributed as “male-like” or “female-like”, while “sex” pertains to the biological and physical characteristics such as hormones, genes, physiology and anatomy.

Smith said it is important to distinguish between these two dimensions.

“They represent different pathways through which differences between men and women are created,” he said. “In addition, the policy intervention responses to male and female differences will differ depending on whether the differences are ‘gender’ based or ‘sex’ based.”

In addition to helping shape policies that reflect gender differences, this research also aims to aid health-care providers in understanding where differences may exist between genders with respect to care recommendations.

Smith said the area of gender difference with respect to the interaction between health-care providers and injured workers is currently not well investigated.

“We do know from studies focusing on general conditions, such as back pain and knee osteoarthritis, which are not specifically work-related, that men and women receive different recommendations even when they have the same condition,” Smith said.

As an example, he cited a study in Ontario on physical recommendations for two patients – one male and one female – with moderate knee osteoarthritis found that physicians were twice as likely to recommend surgery to the male patient.

Smith said this could potentially be attributed to unconscious or conscious stereotyping among doctors about gender/sex differences in who is more likely to benefit from surgery or will be supported in their recovery.

“These differences might also be due to the way men and women describe their symptoms; previous studies have suggested women use a more narrative style and men use a more direct and factual style.”

Over the next five years, Smith’s research will examine the factors that mediate the relationship between gender/sex and return-to-work outcomes, and identify situations where gender/sex moderates the relationship between variables and return-to-work outcomes.

For more information about Smith’s research, visit the IWH website.

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