Abstract: Traditional Gender Roles and the Narrowing Gender Gap in Substance Use Among Adolescents in Mexico and Spain (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Traditional Gender Roles and the Narrowing Gender Gap in Substance Use Among Adolescents in Mexico and Spain

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Stephen Kulis, PhD, Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Flavio Marsiglia, PhD, Regent's Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background and Purpose: Low and high income countries worldwide are witnessing a rapidly closing gender gap in substance use as rates for women approach those of men among younger generations. The narrowing gap is often attributed to declining conformity to traditional gender roles (TGRs). Socialization into TGRs has been viewed as promoting risk taking and substance use among males but discouraging it among females. This study investigated TGRs as predictors of narrowing gender differences in substance use among adolescents in Spain and Mexico.

Methods: We collected questionnaire data from 7th grade students in public middle schools in two Spanish regions (Seville, Andalucia; Santiago de Compostela, Galicia) and the three largest cities in Mexico (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey) (49 schools, n=6,279 students, Mage=12.1, 49.5% female). Outcomes included recent frequency of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and inhalants use, and recent heavy episodic drinking. A 5-item TGRs scale assessed endorsement of a polarized gender division of family labor and power, e.g. that men should be breadwinners, women should care for home and children, and defer to their husband’s decisions. We tested for gender differences in TGRs and substance use with t-tests. Controlling for age and SES (family financial strain), separate regression analyses by gender and gender interaction models tested whether TGRs predicted outcomes differently for males and females.

Results: There were three main findings. (1) Although males reported significantly more adherence to TGRs than females, only small minorities (< 5%) of both genders endorsed TGRs strongly. (2) There were few significant gender differences in substance use in Spain, and where they occurred (e.g., males’ greater use of marijuana), the differences persisted after controlling for TGRs. There was a more consistent pattern of gender differences in Mexico, but they reflected a much larger sample than in Spain, and standardized coefficients were as small as in Spain. (3) Conformity to TGRs predicted greater use of all four substances in Spain, and alcohol use in Mexico, but in substance-specific and gendered patterns. Among males, TGRs predicted substance use in expected ways: more heavy episodic drinking, intoxication, and use of inhalants. For females in both countries, TGRs did not predict lower frequency of any type of substance use, as most studies have shown historically. Instead, female adolescents who adhered more strongly to TGRs reported relatively greater use of alcohol (Spain and Mexico) and tobacco (Spain).

Conclusions and Implications: Results for males are consistent with arguments that traditional polarized gender role expectations for men continue to increase male adolescents’ behavioral risk-taking in Mexico and Spain. For females, TGRs did not provide protection from substance use, but instead, were associated with increased use of licit substances. Results may reflect persisting TGR socialization in families alongside gender egalitarian ideologies taking root in the larger society, conflicting gender role messages for females, and gender segregation in exposure to substance offers and opportunities. Implications for prevention include the need to design interventions that recognize shifting TGR norms, provide decision-making alternatives to those promoted by TGRs, and help youth navigate gendered behavioral expectations.