International Women’s Day: Closing the Gender Health Gap

Now more than ever, our health and wellbeing has never closer to the top of the agenda and it belongs to us all…

However there remains a significant amount of inequality in healthcare. In the UK alone, 51% of the population still face obstacles in accessing the healthcare they need.

To mark International Women’s Day, we wanted to shine a light on the disparities in women’s health, as well as the incredible work of those in the public eye working to raise awareness.

Did you know that women were only first included in clinical trials in the 1980s and it wasn’t compulsory until 1990s?

In a more recent example, Harvard health reports that 70% of people affected by chronic pain are women, but 80% of the research is conducted on males. The repercussions of this disparity don’t need any further explanation…

And this isn’t just an issue that should land on research and pharma challenges… this is something that is culturally and systemically embedded throughout our society.

Kate Baker, Head of People and Culture at Incite explores the more recent positive shift in narrative around so-called embarrassing women’s health and the role this is playing in raising awareness and driving positive change.

Celebrities and influencers are doing a brilliant job of overcoming the stigma and secrecy, and generally making everything less scary, even naming their stoma bags (Adele Roberts, who is undergoing treatment for bowel cancer, calls hers ‘Audrey’).

Lina Chan, founder and CEO of Parla, who writes here about the role of femtech in tackling taboo subjects in women’s health and the importance of involving women affected in the design process, starts her article with the powerful statement:

“Women are taught from a young age to be ashamed of our bodies. We’re conditioned to stay small, look pretty, and have no flaws – and if we do, we must certainly never admit them. This is maybe why so many areas of women’s health – from periods to fertility to menopause – are shrouded in taboo. We’ve been taught that anything less than physical perfection is something to be ashamed of.”

Let’s look at some examples of the women leading the battle against shame and stigma, reclaiming their conditions, and empowering others.

Davina McCall has been a huge voice in the menopause conversation – “For far too long, there’s been a shroud of embarrassment, shame and fear around this topic, and this is where it stops!”.  

Davina’s documentary, ‘Sex, Mind and the Menopause explored how menopause can affect the mind as well as the body, with memory loss and brain fog having a devastating impact on women at work.

The menopause transition can have a significant impact on many women, with more than 75% experiencing menopausal symptoms and a quarter describing their symptoms as severe. One in 10 women leaves a job completely under these circumstances, which equates to 333,000 women aged 45-55 in the workplace leaving their jobs due to the menopause.

Lena Dunham, the American actor, writer and director, spoke openly on the Reign with Josh Smith podcast about the sexist treatment she faced whilst seeking help for her debilitating endometriosis with doctors advising her to ‘just relax’ and ‘drink wine before sex’ to ease any painful symptoms she faced. Lena made the decision to have a hysterectomy in 2018, after struggling for years with crippling endometriosis pain.

For many women, endometriosis simply doesn’t get diagnosed, often being fobbed off by doctors who just prescribe with them strong painkillers and tell them to get on with it. For other women, they do get a diagnosis, but it often takes up to ten years. In the meantime, women are dealing with incredible pain, fatigue, anxiety and a host of other debilitating symptoms.

Two hundred million women worldwide struggle with endometriosis, for which there is no cure, but there is also a real lack of funding and importance placed on research about the condition.

Padma Lakshmi, an author, actor and activist, joined Lena and a host of other women in making the video ‘I am 1 in 10’, to put endometriosis at the top of the agenda, highlighting just how many women this affects, worldwide. The film is a powerful call to action – “It’s time for women to come together, to step out from the shadows, raise our voices for early diagnosis, for greater awareness, for more research funding, for treatment that works.” 

YouTuber Zoe Sugg (Zoella), shared footage with her 4.8m followers of her having a smear test, to encourage more women to attend their screenings. Zoe said that she wanted her followers to feel “a little bit more at ease when they get their letter through the post.”

With 25-50% of women avoiding their screenings, due to embarrassment and shame at having to be undressed, anxiety around pain, and simply not knowing what to expect.

Zoe received wide acclaim for using her platform to educate viewers about such an important procedure.

The examples above, along with countless others who are using their platforms and privilege to highlight these taboo conditions and demystify uncomfortable procedures, are leading the charge in speaking up and speaking out.

However, we have only scratched the surface in this piece. There is still a lot of very important work to be done, as women’s health inequality persists, from medical gaslighting to the terrible experience of many black women in pregnancy and childbirth (black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women). As Lena says, “It’s just really that the medical system is designed for straight white men”.  

So, what can we do? Keep talking. Keep speaking up about things that might make people squirm. We might not all have the platforms of celebrities but the more we talk the better; talk to our children, speak out at work, use our voices for those who cannot. Collectively we can forge positive change.