A Psychology Major's Thoughts on the Exclusion of Women from Medical Research

When I transferred from majoring in biology and human anatomy to majoring in psychology, I started to become uncomfortable with the way medical science teaches students.

Namely, how often it accepts problematic research as fact.

Suddenly I had questions that I had never considered before. How often had I actually examined research papers as a biology student? Why weren’t we taught to do so?

Studies were cited in our papers without question. We generalized often.

Enter the world of psychology. Here, academics debate biases and generalizations in research like it’s a professional sport. Why are white males of a certain age the ‘go to’ population for research? Why are women of colour rarely studied? Are we treating everyone the same, when we really shouldn’t be?

To answer this, it helps to know the history of modern medical science (circa the 18th century). To sum it up generally:

Predominantly white males studied male behavior using male subjects.

The fallout of this, while still largely unknown, has manifested in the following ways:

  • The heart attack gender gap (women have higher mortality rates and lower resuscitation rates than men for cardiac arrests) [i]
  • Female reproductive disorders take disproportionately long to diagnose [ii]
  • Women’s symptoms are ‘brushed off’ by physicians more often than men’s symptoms [iii]
  • Black women are 2-6 times more likely to die from child birth/pregnancy related problems than white women [iv]
  • Adolescent Indigenous women are almost 400% more likely to die than white adolescent women [v]
  • The standard of care for elderly women with dementia is lower than that for men [vi]

If these statistics alarmed you, that’s understandable. They reflect a small part of a massive problem. Women are dying because of biases in medical research and treatment, and depending on your age and/or race, the cards are stacked against you.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the intersectionality at play here concerns sterilization. With vasectomies now common and uncomplicated procedures in North America, women still face differential barriers when it comes to sterilization surgery.

  • Indigenous women in Canada continue to face forced sterilization from hospitals [vii]
  • White women in Canada continue to face denial when asking for voluntary sterilization [viii]

Sterilization surgery for women is a more complicated procedure than for men, but why hasn’t that been a factor for  Indigenous women? If certain women are forcibly sterilized while others are denied sterilization, then this is really an issue of bodily autonomy with an outcome that  further drives down the population of Indigenous people in Canada.

All this to say, the stats I’ve uncovered in my degree left me feeling more than a bit discouraged. But there may be a way to turn some of these statistics around in future generations.

One solution to the problem hinges on an important effect in medicine – what psychologist’s call social concordance. When doctors and patients are the same for demographics like gender and race, they may receive better care and communication. [ix] Studies have effectively displayed this for black patients[x], and female diabetic patients[xi], amongst other populations.

So now that we’ve identified a way to improve visibility for women, how can we advocate to diversify medicine?

Organizations like Project Diversify Medicine, The Federation of Medical Women in Canada, and The Black Medical Students' Association of Canada are already up and running, but they need more recognition to continue making an impact. You can always show your support by volunteering, donating, and/or publicizing the work of these groups, and by signing and helping draft petitions.

With International Women’s Day right around the corner, I can’t think of a better time than now to support to protect the rights of all women in medicine, from patients to doctors to everyone in between.