Women Are Not Getting the Healthcare They Deserve

Author’s note: This article mainly examines the health gap from a cisgender perspective. The author recognizes that people of different gender identities face different, and often additional, healthcare obstacles. 

Women’s lives are characterized by constant vigilance over healthcare due to its gendered inadequacies. The enduring sexism in medical research and subsequent lack of attention to women’s health issues have created significant healthcare disadvantages relative to men. 

This stems mainly from the fact that, historically, only men served as subjects in medical trials. Our understanding of the causes, consequences, and treatments of various diseases has been conditioned according to male physiology. The result is a lack of adequate treatment methods for women with these same diseases. Additionally, neglect towards conditions specific to women — like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) — has led to a knowledge gap about treatment methods and even the causes of such health issues. Gauging the extent to which the patriarchal structure of our society has affected the lives of women across generations for the worse is a demanding task. Thus, to recognize and deprogram the prevailing sexism in medicine, there needs to be an understanding of the root causes and obstacles that prevent women from enjoying an equitable lifestyle to men.

It’s a man’s world and we’re just living in it

The inclusion of women in medical research has, until recently, been egregiously neglected. It was only in 1993 that the US National Institute of Health (NIH), the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, mandated the inclusion of women and people of colour in federally funded research under the Institutes of Health Revitalization Act.  

This exclusion of women highlights the prevailing “andronormativity” of medical research: “a state of affairs where male values are regarded as normal to the extent that female values disappear or need to be blatantly highlighted to be recognized.” Men serve as the “standard” for medical research — with its subsequent findings often assumed to be generalizable to the rest of the population. This increases the chances of the late or misdiagnosis of a disease that presents itself differently in women, with these symptoms viewed as “atypical.”

Why have women been excluded from research?

There are three main reasons why women have been historically excluded from medical research. First, there is a lack of funding for and interest in researching the effects of diseases on women. Because the male model serves as the standard, researchers haven’t felt the need to deviate from it. Second, women’s fluctuating hormones, in part due to menstruation, make research more expensive as there are more confounding variables to account for. Third, concerns over women’s fertility and potential damages excluded most women of child-bearing age from studies until recently.

It’s disheartening to learn that a significant obstacle in researching women’s health is increased costs relative to men’s. This signals that women’s well-being is not worth the “investment.” Considering women’s hormones to be additional confounders further perpetuates the norm of taking male physiology as the blueprint of what human physiology is supposed to be; it suggests that women’s traits are deviant from what should be. Lastly, using concerns over fertility as an excuse to exclude women reduces women’s worth to their reproductive potential and capabilities. It constrains the entirety of women’s health down to simply reproductive health, insinuating that a woman’s greatest purpose is to give birth. Therefore society must protect and conserve that ability over all others. 

Getting comfortable with menstrual products is important for destigmatizing periods. “Three different types of feminine hygiene products on pink background” by Marco Verch Professional Photographer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s talk about periods

Despite their severity, there has been an intense and detrimental normalization of menstrual symptoms such as cramps, bloating, and fatigue. A woman on her period is expected to behave no differently, even though she is actively bleeding and likely experiencing all the above symptoms. So, if ever symptoms of menstruation get the best of her, her pain is often discounted. Accompanying the above are loaded accusations of “hysterical” behaviour or a misogynistic belief that women are thus “weaker” than men. This ignorance and apathy have made the task of contextualizing period distress difficult. Research conducted in 2016 at University College London found that period pain can be as bad as the pain of a heart attack. However, the lack of broader research on the topic makes this claim widely unknown or even unbelievable. This shows how the pain associated with menstruation is so minimized in society that women’s general capabilities come into question in the name of a biological necessity. 

The relative underappreciation and ensuing ignorance of women’s health issues are most evident in the realm of menstruation. It is something that intimately affects over half the world’s population, and yet there continues to be a widespread lack of understanding and empathy for its experience. There is an enduring mindset that because menstruation “has to happen,” there is no benefit to engaging in critical discourse about it. In other words, women are often forced to feel as though they should simply “put up” with it. Such deliberate ignorance fails in creating any kind of accommodative framework for women to make enduring menstruation easier. No matter how much society tries to deny it, the fact is that menstruation is inconvenient, makes one’s life harder, and continues to be attached to widespread social stigma and taboo. 

Why health equity matters

One in ten women around the globe have endometriosis, but it takes seven years on average for it to be diagnosed. PCOS affects three to 10 percent of women, yet 75 percent of cases remain undiagnosed. These conditions are “hard” to identify because there exists little research into women’s health issues, and therefore a lack of consistent diagnostic criteria. Symptoms of endometriosis include abdominal pain during menstruation, heavy bleeding, nausea, fatigue, and pain during intercourse — highly normalized symptoms for periods in general. PCOS symptoms include hair growth, weight gain, and acne and can easily be chalked up to temporary hormonal imbalance, stress, an unhealthy lifestyle, etc. The normalization of symptoms and lack of research are actively contributing to substandard health services for women.  

Despite being in the 21st century, female physiology remains more elusive than that of males. By not investing in women’s health, society denies women the same quality of life that men have access to. The lack of data concerning women’s health in the medical community prevents the trickle-down of knowledge to the general populace, thus keeping the cycle of a lack of understanding and empathy towards women’s health issues in motion. Unless more attention is paid to these issues, focusing on closing the gender health gap, society cannot achieve gender equality. Women will continue living a life of poorer quality — a life filled with worry over whether they will suddenly fall victim to elusive illnesses like endometriosis and PCOS for which there are no targeted treatments, keeping the threat of the unknown alive like a sword over their necks. But hey, we’ve got Viagra though! 

The unknown causes unbridled anxiety. “Depression, anxiety” by Mohamed Hassan is licensed under CC0 1.0

Featured Image: “Icon representing women’s health by Kaldari, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Edited by Naomi Lyzun and Timothy Rhydderch