The Gender Risk: What’s the Difference?

When primitive men and women discovered fire, it changed their very existence. Food and shelters could be heated, not to mention providing illumination and some degree of protection from the animal kingdom predators that roamed the planet. Not quite as dramatic except to those of us in the life insurance industry, the employment of actuarial science in the late 17th century provided kindling to the underwriting fire. This included the production of life tables and application of compound interest to the challenge of calculating the present value of the future liability, the very foundation of life insurance premiums.

What does this have to do with gender? In the early days, not very much. It was all an actuary could do to wade through individual birth and death records to calculate premiums based on the still most important risk factor, the age of the life being insured. No distinction between male and female was made and, as a result, unisex pricing was the norm. Around 1880, the rate of male mortality started to rise and astute actuaries the world over eventually began to reflect those differences in the pricing of life insurance rates. (1). The mortality/gender gap is especially pronounced in older lives, where 57% of all those aged 65 are female and by age 85 women make up 67% of the population (2). In Canada, women, on average, live 4 years longer than men, making the actuarial argument that men should pay more for life insurance (3). While Canadian insurance companies take these differences into account when pricing life insurance, it is not always the universal view. Since 2012, the European Union prohibits pricing based on gender for life, health and even auto insurance, raising the age-old question of fairness; should a lower risk group, in this case women, subsidize the higher-risk group, male policyholders (4)?

The question of why women outlive men, at least on average, continues to be of interest. The early observations, that smoking and cardiovascular disease are the main culprits remain true today. We also have a deeper understanding of the role of stress, as well as the behavioural and cultural patterns that may predispose men to take more risks, drink more alcohol and seek medical care less often. This latter point is particularly pernicious as although women are often thought to be diagnosed more often with depression, men generally have much higher suicide rates (5).

This was highlighted most recently when United States Senator John Fetterman was hospitalized voluntarily for depression, drawing praise for making his struggle with mental health public (6). Contrast this with Thomas Eagleton, also a United States senator in 1972 and Vice-Presidential candidate dropped from the ticket a week after disclosing treatment for depression in his past (7).

Today’s discussions on gender run deeper than the traditional female-male divide. New perspectives on gender identity, roles and their impact on health bring new understanding and continue to evolve. Watch this space as we share more on this topic.

  1. Crimmins, Eileen et al. Differences Between Men and Women in mortality and the Health Dimensions of the Morbidity Process. Clinical Chemistry. Volume 65, No. 1, 2019, pages 135-145.
  2. Shmerling, Robert H., MD. Why men often die earlier than women. Harvard Health Blog, June 22, 2020
  3. Life expectancy at birth in Canada from 2010-2020 by gender. September 2022.
  4. Fontinelle, Amy. Gender and Insurance Costs. July 25, 2022.
  5. Mental Health and Suicide in Canada-Key Takeaways. July 6, 2022.
  6. Barry, Ellen and Gay, Sheryl. Fetterman’s Disclosure of Depression Signals New Openness on Mental Health. February 17, 2023
  7. Greenfield, Jeff. What John Fetterman Should know About Thomas Eagleton. February 17, 2023.

This article is provided by Know the Risk, an educational website that contains underwriting information for insurance professionals, available exclusively to Advisors affiliated with PPI (login required).

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The Gender Risk: What’s the Difference?