CORVALLIS, Ore. Little girls growing up in western society are expected to be neat and tidy "all ribbon and curls" and one researcher who studies science and gender differences thinks that emphasis may contribute to higher rates of certain diseases in adult women.
The link between increased hygiene and sanitation and higher rates of asthma, allergies and autoimmune disorders is known as the "hygiene hypothesis" and the link is well-documented. Yet the role of gender is rarely explored as part of this phenomenon.
Oregon State University philosopher Sharyn Clough thinks researchers need to dig deeper. In her new study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, she points out that women have higher rates of allergies and asthma, and many autoimmune disorders. However, there is no agreed-upon explanation for these patterns. Clough offers a new explanation.
Clough documents a variety of sociological and anthropological research showing that our society socializes young girls differently from young boys. In particular, she notes, girls are generally kept from getting dirty compared to boys.
"Girls tend to be dressed more in clothing that is not supposed to get dirty, girls tend to play indoors more than boys, and girl's playtime is more often supervised by parents," said Clough, adding that this is likely to result in girls staying cleaner. "There is a significant difference in the types and amounts of germs that girls and boys are exposed to, and this might explain some of the health differences we find between women and men."
However, that doesn't mean that parents should let their daughters go out into the back yard and eat dirt, Clough points out.
"What I am proposing is new ways of looking at old studies," she said. "The hygiene hypothesis is well-supported, but what I am hoping is that the epidemiologists and clinicians go back and examine their data through the lens of gender."
|Contact: Sharyn Clough|
Oregon State University