Women on average live longer than men, yet studies have found that women spend a greater portion of their lives in ill health, make fewer visits to the GP, receive less health monitoring, and take more potentially harmful medication.

The facts and figures around female health discrimination make for sobering reading. But at long last, the women’s health narrative is taking centre stage — particularly in the UK, where the ‘woeful’ gender health gap (the largest among G20 countries, and 12th largest globally) has been thrown into the spotlight.

As an increasing body of evidence emerges, it’s clear that action must be taken to address this systemic, centuries-long form of discrimination against women, and to close the female health gap. 

‘Health gaps’ are differences in the prevalence of disease, health outcomes, or access to healthcare across different groups. The gender health gap describes the sexism within healthcare, and the poorer service and outcomes women receive as a result. 

The dire state of the UK’s gender health gap is backed up by a long list of galling stats. While one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health issue in their lives, less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to reproductive health.

What’s more, five times more research goes into erectile dysfunction — which affects 19% of men — than into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women. 

The extraordinary lack of research into women’s health, and a societal tendency to normalise ‘women’s issues’ — such as severe period pain, heavy bleeding, contraception-related problems, and menopause symptoms — play key roles in the discrimination women face in healthcare.

The symptoms women experience relating to reproductive or gynaecological health have for generations been dismissed and overlooked (often passed off as what women should just ‘put up with’), leading to women receiving poor treatment, dangerous misdiagnoses, and dying early and preventable deaths. 

One recent study by Manchester Metropolitan University found that women with endometriosis — a condition that affects 1.5 million women in the UK — are being “medically gaslit”, and are feeling dismissed and ignored when accessing support. The study identified a number of barriers to care for women with endometriosis, including a lack of medical understanding from healthcare providers, and a ‘postcode lottery’ around the quality of care. 

Endometriosis, where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows outside of the womb, such as on the fallopian tubes or ovaries, currently has no cure and can be difficult to diagnose and manage. Social stigma and a lack of open discussion and education around period pain, heavy bleeding, and menstruation related issues has made diagnosis and treatment even more delayed. (It takes an average of 7.5 years to get a diagnosis of endometriosis.)

Studies also show there are layers of discrimination within women’s health; beyond gender, there are disparities by race, class, physical ability/disability, and postcode. If you’re a black woman, for instance, you’re nearly four times as likely to die within six weeks of giving birth than a white woman, with Asian women nearly twice as likely, according to UK figures.

Black, Asian, and ethnic minority women are also even less likely than white women to be included in health research.

What’s being done? 

8 out of 10 women in the UK feel they’re not listened to by healthcare professionals — this was one of the findings from the analysis of almost 100,000 responses to the call for evidence, as part of the UK government’s Women’s Health Strategy, launched in 2021.

The strategy, which sets out key commitments for the next 10 years to tackle the UK’s gender health gap, proposes actions including £25 million in funding for women’s health hubs to be set up across England (now underway), improved access to information on women’s health issues; a commitment to running reproductive health experiences surveys every two years; a £2 million investment in a randomized control trial on endometriosis, as well as a push to support women’s health in the workplace.

The UK government’s Women’s Health Ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan, has said she wants women’s health hubs across the country to deal with everything in one place, so that we can “wrap the services around women and stop making the women run around the services.”

Dame Lesley is also the chair of Wellbeing of Women, one of the only grant-giving bodies for women’s health, that’s currently funding 30 projects in universities. 

A patriarchal world 

So, why have women been left struggling for so long? And why has women’s health been so under-researched?  Author of ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’, Caroline Criado Perez, states the problem is a patriarchal world view that’s prevalent in our healthcare system. 

Her research revealed women are routinely underrepresented in clinical trials, and that medical research proposed by women, for women, is not allotted the same funding as medical research proposed by men, for men. 

According to Dr Irving Zucker, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for decades, women have been excluded from clinical drug trials, partly due to unfounded concerns that women’s hormonal fluctuations make them difficult to study. Until the early 1990s, women of childbearing age were kept out of trial studies due to concerns about exposing pregnant women to drugs and risking damage to their foetuses.

Without researchers having the opportunity to identify and study sex differences in diseases, however, assumptions are made that similar medical treatments will work for both sexes.

In a report commissioned by the Women’s Brain Project, a non-profit based in Switzerland, it was found that women are also under-represented in clinical trials in oncology and neurology. Other research shows funding for many conditions that exclusively or disproportionately affect women is significantly lower than for those affecting men.

Education and awareness 

As work accelerates to close the gender health gap across the world, and ultimately support women in their physical health, the need for guidance, education and a wider acknowledgment of women’s health issues, has become a greater focus for governments and the media.

Elinor Cleghorn’s ‘Unwell Women’ and Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’

Driving this much-needed awareness, are several internationally best-selling women’s health books, from Caroline Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women’, to Elinor Cleghorn’s ‘Unwell Women: A Journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World’ (2021), to ‘The Female Body Bible: Make Your Body Work for You’ by Dr Emma Ross, Baz Moffat and Dr Bella Smith.

Dr. Karen Tang’s upcoming, highly-anticipated book ‘It’s Not Hysteria: Everything You Need to Know About Your Reproductive Health (but Were Never Told)’, aims to educate, empower, and equip women to take control of their gynecologic health. The book, set for release in July 2024, explores everything from period problems and pelvic pain, to menopause and fertility, to vaginal and urinary conditions — with advice and guidance on potential treatment options, and practical tools such as symptom prompts and sample questions for medical providers.

Explore more in ITN Business’ upcoming programme

This International Women’s Day (March 8th, 2024), ITN Business’ will be launching a new programme, Women’s Health: The Future We Deserve, showcasing organisations and individuals that are actively working to challenge assumptions, positively address women’s health issues, close the gender health gap, and improve health outcomes for women.

Presented by broadcaster and journalist, Louise Minchin, the programme will cover key themes including FemTech, workplace health, and reproductive medicine.

 

Our International Women’s Day podcast

Keep an eye and ear out for ITN Business’ International Women’s Day podcast, hosted by Dr Nighat Arif and featuring three expert guests:

  • Dr Karen Tang – author of It’s Not Hysteria: Everything You Need to Know About Your Reproductive Health (but Were Never Told)’, a gynecologic surgeon, and internationally recognised leader in reproductive health;
  • Dr Marieke Bigg, author of ‘This Won’t Hurt: How Medicine Fails Women’. Marieke collaborates with renowned scientists, artists and academics on projects that imagine the future of reproductive science;
  • Sarah Graham, an award-winning freelance health journalist, specialising in health, gender and feminism. She is the author of ‘Rebel Bodies: A guide to the gender health gap revolution’ and founder of the feminist women’s health blog Hysterical Women.

Did you know… 

  • The word ‘hysterical‘ comes from the Greek word for ‘womb’. According to Caroline Criado Perez, it’s a word that has been being used for hundreds of years to undermine women’s experiences.
  • In 2022, it was reported that women are 32% more likely to die after an operation by a male surgeon, than if the surgeon is female.
  • In 2019, a study of around 7 million people in Denmark found that women were diagnosed with hundreds of health conditions, on average, four years later than men. Diagnoses for diabetes came four and a half years later, while cancer was diagnosed in women when they were an average two and a half years older.

Sources/wider reading