Gender and social capital: are social networks a mixed blessing for women?


Having a decent social network is usually a really good thing, both for you and for the communities to which you belong. Conversely, loneliness and isolation can be seriously harmful to your health and well-being, as well as damaging to your communities’ attempts to cooperate.

In revising my introductory textbook for its latest edition I concluded that the literature on the health benefits of social capital is now well-established and reasonably conclusive. However, as I also emphasised, different forms of social capital can have different consequences for different parts of the population. And just as the book went to press, along came a new study which made this point nicely.

The study was led by Sara Ferlander, from the Stockholm Centre for Health and Social Change, and drew on data collected in the Moscow Health Survey. You can read their paper, which is available on open access here. I will therefore focus in this post on the findings that particularly interested me.

First, as with a number of other studies, the survey found that women were more likely than men to report that they suffer from depression. They were also more likely to say that they suffer from severe depression. The authors then used a statistical technique called regression analysis to try to determine how other factors, including social networks, were connected to depression; they found that while education and age showed little connection, money problems and depression did go together.

Other studies, summarised in my book, have shown that social networks generally help act as a buffer against depression. The reasons might seem obvious: having someone to turn to in times of trouble isn’t just a way of overcoming practical problems, but is also reassuring to your sense of self and worth to others. But Moscow survey findings show a degree of complexity.

Women who were divorced or widowed, all other things being even, had higher odds of reporting depression. This is broadly what social capital theory leads us to expect, and the Ferlander team concluded that this form of social capital has particular importance for women.

More unexpectedly, the study found no association for either men or women between self-reported depression and either membership of voluntary groups or contacts with friends. And for women, it found that those with fewer age-bridging connections were less likely to report depression than those whose social ties were richer in age-diverse connections. The researchers suggest that this might be explained partly by sharp inter-generational tensions in Russian society and gender discrimination in the workplace.

The obvious question is whether we would find similar patterns elsewhere. Given Russia’s particular social and economic history, it’s likely that there are distinctive factors at work in the well-being of both women and men. Nevertheless, this study nicely illustrates the ways in which social capital somtimes works differently for women and men, and I wish I’d had access to it before the book went to press!


What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

Here is another dilemma for those who write about the past: by what name should we refer to prominent women?

For much of history, middle and upper class women were routinely known by their husband’s names. I don’t just mean that they took their husband’s surname, but in public they often used his first name as well.

Lady Henry Somerset is one such. She was Lady Isabella – sometimes spelt as Isobel – Caroline Somers-Cocks before her marriage to Lord Henry Somerset. Elected President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890, she was one of the principal founders of Duxhurst farm colony, which opened its doors in 1895 as a centre for ‘inebriate women’. She separated from her husband shortly after discovering that he was a homosexual, and famously won custody of their son.

By which name should we refer to her today? I’ve used both ‘Lady Henry Somerset’, which was how she was often referred to in the contemporary press, and under which she published; but I have also used plain ‘Isobel Somerset’. Is this a weaselly compromise, or – as I hope – a sensible solution which reflects modern sensibilities without sanitising the past?

A last point: my modern solution would have greatly offended Lady Somerset, who insisted throughout her life on using her title, which she held by birth as well as marriage.

Gender and university governance

Last week’s blog discussed the low proportion of women who sit on the governing bodies of Scotland’s universities. Over the weekend, I looked at governing boards in universities in London and Yorkshire. The good news is that things are better in these two regions. The bad news is that they aren’t all that much better.

Women governors form 30% of the total in London universities, and 34% in Yorkshire. At two universities – Leeds Met and Sheffield Hallam – there are more women governors than men. By comparison, women comprise 28% of board members in Scotland.

Six of the 26 London boards are chaired by women and three of the 11 Yorkshire boards. These women chairs include Estelle Morris at Goldsmiths and retired spook Dame Manningham-Buller at Imperial, while Jenny Abramski chairs the trustees of the University of London. Scotland has no women chairs.

I imagine that I don’t need to bang on about this. Clearly, governing bodies in London and Yorkshire are still largely male zones. They do show, though, that women are willing to join and chair governing boards, where they no doubt do as good a job as men. They also suggest that the position in Scotland is inexcusable.

This brings me neatly to a sort of postscript. If you remember, Universities Scotland claimed last week that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. I emailed them last week to ask for clarification, without success. Perhaps they were referring to universities in Yorkshire.


Correction Universities Scotland contacted me this week to say that they had not received last week’s email. It turns out that I used an incorrect address. They have promised to get back to me once they have checked the information they relied on for their statement.