Women+ health biases. Three things we should all do. Today.

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Brand & Creative

Hayley O’Donnell, Copy Supervisor, Inizio Evoke Europe

You'll know that 8th March was International Women's Day. But you might not know that we, at Inizio Evoke, marked this important day by hosting a special event, organised by the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA). We called it: Should we still be talking about women+[1] health biases? 

The answer to this question was, of course, a resounding ‘YES’. As Katja Lundell from Theramex said:

“We are just scratching the surface of these biases. As late as 2019, a published study from Denmark found that women were diagnosed later than men for the same conditions."

Katja was just one of five remarkable women on our panel:

  • Widge Woolsey – CEO at Ufulu Malawi

  • Katja Lundell – Senior Director, Theramex

  • Emma Jolly – Associate Director, Inizio Evoke

  • Emily Portnoi – Senior Art Director, Inizio Evoke

  • Fernanda Trevisan, MSc – Strategy Director and Head of Behaviour Change, Inizio Evoke

Each came armed with research findings, passion and empathy – ready to delve into the biases that are affecting the health of people who identify as women.

After setting the scene with some, rather shocking, examples of gender bias – including the fact that one in two women feel their pain symptoms are ignored or dismissed – the panel was keen to find solutions.

So, they quickly turned their attention to how we, as communicators, can make women+ healthcare better. As Widge Woolsey from Ufulu said, these solutions could have a bigger impact than many people might realise:

“You can solve so many socio-economic problems by bettering women’s health. I’ve seen it in my work. By giving menstrual cups to women working in tea fields, within three months, there was a 20% increase in the amount of tea they were able to pick because they weren’t uncomfortable. And this is just one small example.”

Though you won't want to miss the full discussion (you can watch it here), here are three key takeaways that we can all put into practice today.  

1. Know that awareness is not enough

We know for a fact that gender biases are affecting the diagnosis of potentially life-threating conditions.

In fact, our own research into bias found that women with symptoms of coronary heart disease (CHD) were asked different questions to men. CHD was mentioned more often as a possible diagnosis for men than for women, and physicians were less certain about their diagnosis with female patients.

When people’s lives are on the line, creating awareness of these biases just isn’t enough. It’s a start. But we also need action.

We need to empower people who identify as women. We need to encourage them to persist – and never give up – if they feel something isn’t right. As Widge said:

“If your gut is telling you something is wrong with you, keep going.”

But advocating for ourselves takes confidence – and we might need help from each other with this.

Our panel shared how, through speaking to friends or relatives about their concerns, they’ve realised their loved ones have had similar experiences. They’ve realised they’re not alone.

One by one, these small conversations can all add up until we’re brave enough to push for answers and get our concerns acknowledged. So, let’s encourage people to talk more, starting with people they’re closest to, people they can trust.

We should also give both patients and healthcare professionals step by step approaches to having more informed conversations. After all, this isn't a one-way street. Healthcare conversations go both ways.

2. Delve into the term 'women+'?

Is everyone who identifies as a woman the same? The answer is, of course, a big NO.

Among us, we have different physiologies, ethnicities, ages, backgrounds, jobs, religions… and so much more. We should represent these diverse experiences in our healthcare communications. We should also incorporate as many different women+ patient voices as possible to create a true representation of life with a particular disease.

There is a time, however, when we might want to be grouped under the same women+ health umbrella. This time is, as the panel discussed, when we’re talking about conditions that affect both men and women.

There’s a very good reason for this: researchers have found sex differences in every tissue and organ system in the human body[2]. From pain signals to the mechanical workings of our hearts, the anatomical differences are substantial.

But, and it’s a big BUT, the male body is the default for medical research and training. This is the system our healthcare professionals have inherited – through no choice of their own.

Isn’t it time to move medicine into the future? For us as communicators, we can start by looking at our current communications and reassessing their representativeness.

3. Push for equity, not equality

Today, just 2% of medical research funding is spent on pregnancy, childbirth and female reproductive health. This is despite one in three women reporting a reproductive or gynaecological health problem. Women are also drastically underrepresented in clinical trials.

We have so much ground to make up that we need more funding, more research, and more women+ in clinical trials.

We need to push for data collection specifically for women+ health needs. We need to identify those gaps – those huge gaps – and fill them with all the answers we’re currently missing.

This can't come soon enough. As Katja said in our International Women's Day event

“In a report by Endometriosis UK published recently, the time to diagnosis has increased to eight years and 10 months. Rather than speeding up, things are going backwards.”

So, it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We can all start by challenging ourselves and others. We know biases exist, so let’s start questioning why things are the way they are.

Why is women+ health research so underfunded, for example? And why is the male body still the default for medical research and training?

Let’s ask and find out… and let’s all be brave enough to keep calling for change.

You can watch the full discussion on bias in women+ health here. It’s one not to miss.

[1] Term coined by Rock Health to refer to cisgender women as well as those who have related health needs but may identify as transgender or nonbinary.

[2] Understanding Sex Differences Marts and Keitt 2004; Prevalence of sexual dimorphism in mammalian phenotypic traits Karp et al 2017; Sex based differences in physiology Blair 2007; Autism Research Centre 2010,