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Opinion piece in The West Australian - WA's wellbeing gender gap

by Colin Pettit

The recent public attention on the experiences and views of sexual consent from high school students across Australia has raised a range of issues around respectful relationships and the wellbeing in general of our children and young people.

This movement has also highlighted the power of young people speaking up on issues that impact them. 

All of Western Australia’s 610,000 children and young people deserve to be safe and respected at all times. Safe and supportive relationships, particularly with family and peers, are vital to a child’s wellbeing.

In WA’s first Speaking Out Survey of almost 5,000 children and young people, which was covered by this newspaper on release last year, the standout finding for me was that female students consistently rated their wellbeing below that of their male peers.

Female high school students reported higher rates of stress, low life satisfaction and not feeling happy with themselves. They were also less likely to feel safe in their home, school, community or on public transport.

I believe we are looking at a wellbeing gender gap.

Concerningly, more than half of the female students we surveyed in Years 9 to 12 reported having been sent unwanted sexual material, such as pornographic pictures, videos or words. This was double the number of males reporting this. Most young people said that they received this content through social media.

Just over half of all Years 7 to 9 students (both male and female) felt that they knew enough about sexual health.

I regularly present the views of WA’s children and young people to a range of audiences, both in the government and non-government sectors, and as I show the above data on how female students responded compared to males in their year groups, I am generally met with a mix of surprise and shock.

Some audience members have had questions for me – like “how can this be?” and “is it really that bad?”

Perhaps this is due to a reasonable assumption that the women’s rights movement and efforts towards gender equality in modern society should mean that children growing up today are living in a more equitable environment than previous generations.

To me, these findings show that the world for WA’s young women is not always what we perceive it to be, and we need to understand their perspectives and what is influencing these views.

To help understand what WA female students reported in the inaugural Speaking Out Survey, my office has undertaken further research to compare our data with similar studies conducted in other states and countries.

The survey findings from WA are largely consistent with international data and research. More alarmingly, the international and national data appears to show that there has been a decline in adolescent emotional wellbeing in the past decade, particularly in female teenagers.

I will be releasing this research review later this year.

On a positive note, what we have found in the WA data is that female students who reported being able to talk to their parents about problems and those who said that their families get along well reported substantially higher happiness and resilience as well as fewer reports of stress.

Being good at making and keeping friends was also associated with higher happiness and resilience scores, as was feeling that teachers listened and cared for them.

The fieldwork for the next Speaking Out Survey is now under way and with support from WA's three education sectors and Lotterywest, we have increased the number of participating students to gather a greater collective voice.

The findings from 2021 and how they compare to the original survey will be released later this year.

I have raised my concerns about a wellbeing gender gap with government leaders and I will continue to do so. We all need to listen to what WA’s next generation are telling us and be prepared to act on their views.

Published in The West Australian on 24 March 2021 on page 64.