Despite the many leaps made by women in recent years, the unfortunate reality is that a gender bias continues to prevail in our societies. This gender bias also has a strong footing in health research, where many medical studies implicitly generalize the results of studies that predominantly include men to all of humanity, without taking gender differences into account. The impact of such neglect is considerable in terms of the risk posed to women’s health, as the male biology has come to shape the guidelines we follow to prevent, diagnose, and treat illness.
The consequence of focusing solely on male biology is a neglect of gender-based differences that can alter the way we address women’s health. Since women’s bodies have smaller organs, are controlled by different hormonal cycles, and have a higher body fat composition, using results from studies that primarily involve male subjects leads to misdiagnosis in women, and in some cases, harm. According to a recent US survey, most women (91%) believe that the healthcare system discriminates against females. Prominent examples that illustrate why the implicit gender bias in health research is important include how women metabolize drugs, experience risk factors for diseases, and are treated by healthcare professionals.
Overall, women react differently to medication when compared to men, but pharmaceutical research has largely been conducted with male study participants, as many researchers hold that men and women will respond identically to medication. In fact, an FDA ban on women participating in drug safety testing only ended in 1993. Gendered differences in drug metabolism are important to consider as certain drugs may be less effective or have a more profound effect on women, potentially putting their lives at risk. For example, a recent study found that a lower dose of zolpidem (used to treat insomnia) is needed for women, compared to men, to create the same response.
Moreover, although heart disease is one of the leading causes of death among women, the majority of research has only focused on how this condition manifests in and is treated for men. The same can also be said for other major diseases, such as stroke, diabetes, and cancer. For example, there is evidence suggesting that chemotherapy drugs (methotrexate) may take longer to exit a female body, compared to a male body, as it is filtered more slowly.
Finally, many healthcare professionals (male or female) lack experience of women’s health issues and often brush them off by claiming that a woman’s health concern is “all in her head” – that her symptoms just aren’t real and that she is overreacting. As a consequence, many women are hesitant to speak up about their health concerns, which puts their health at risk. This issue is especially evident when we consider the gendered experience of pain, where many healthcare providers ignore the symptoms women share and instead claim it’s “just anxiety” (which is an issue in itself, as women are not taken seriously).
Although it has taken time for the medical community to realize that sex-specific differences exist and impact the way in which we deliver healthcare, such recognition is now growing as health studies have become more inclusive by taking into account the effects of certain drugs and risk factors on women’s health. Today, women make up half of studies that are funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) (federal funding). However, gaps remain as many studies by pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers (private industry) continue to underrepresent women. To fix this issue, it is imperative that health researchers and healthcare workers alike continue to recognize and address this problem, so that women’s health concerns are taken seriously and addressed in a timely fashion.