Giambattista Salinari (Department of Economics and Business, University of Sassari, Italy)
Virginia Zarulli (Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark)
It is a well-established fact that in contemporary human populations women outnumber men especially at older ages due to their lower mortality at all ages. In past time the female advantage was probably smaller, but we know that female survival was anyhow higher during famines and epidemics. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic seems to confirm this point even in contemporary times.
This picture has been traditionally explained partly from biological and partly from social and behavioral differences between men and women. Biological factors pertain to the different biological endowments which characterize females compared with males. Proponents of the biological explanations hold that men are less fit, because of several specific causal factors linked to the sex chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA and sexual hormones. Behavioral explanations instead point towards smoking or alcohol and drug abuse, which also play an important role in explaining the gender gap in survival. However, even in this case, research has apparently identified an underling biological layer. Psychological and behavioral disorders which manifest for the first time during adolescence and will influence all subsequent phases of life appear to be strongly correlated with gender, males being more likely to develop problems in the “externalizing” cluster such as alcohol, drug abuse, violent behaviors and accidents and females being more likely to suffer from “internalizing” emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and food disorders.
Currently, this picture is so widely accepted that we frequently forget that the gender gap has undergone a complex and still poorly understood historical evolution which does not seem to be entirely consistent with a pure biologic explanation. It has been shown that a significant gender gap in post-reproductive life expectancy emerged only in the cohorts born between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Before this epoch, the female survival advantage over males was relatively small. From research in historical demography we know that in historical populations female life expectancy was sometimes lower than male life expectancy and not infrequently males had lower mortality rates than women at young adult ages, perhaps because of the high levels of maternal mortality and maternal depletion. We know that, at least in some populations such as in Utah, the emergence of the female survival advantage appears linked to the process of fertility decline and, based on the sparse information available on the diffusion of this phenomenon, the emergence of the gender gap started among the wealthier social strata.
What these recent research works show is that enlarging the historical horizon of the research entails a different perspective on the evolution of the gender gap in survival, while its investigation over different ages and specific circumstances is crucial for further deepening our understanding of such survival gap. For this reason, the papers of this Thematic Series will focus on different cases and analyses of gender differences in survival at different ages and stages of life (infancy, adulthood, old age) in a long run perspective.
Submission Deadline: December 15, 2021