Gender Bias in Medicine

In the past century, the US and other first-world countries have come a long way in reducing gender discrimination in areas such as the workplace and the voting booth. In spite of how far we’ve come, however, we still have a ways to go toward gender equality. Discrimination and sexism still exist in many areas of society, albeit a lot of it seems more subtle and harder to notice today than it was in the 19th century. One such area where pervasive gender bias is often overlooked is in the field of medicine.

In spite of our technological and medical advances in the past century, there is still systemic gender bias in what doctors are taught in medical school that does not take women’s health into account. Because the medical industry has been historically run by men, most medical knowledge relies on the knowledge of the bodies and conditions of men.

 

 

Women have historically been left out of medical studies and even today, women are still underrepresented in most of them. Even in studies of conditions that disproportionately affect women more than men, most research often includes few women . But what makes this even worse is that results of studies where women are included are often not analyzed by sex or gender. In what is commonly referred to as gender blindness, researchers often don’t analyze differences based on sex that are significant to a person’s health.

Because of sex differences such as in hormones and in physiological build, women are affected by drugs and treatment differently than men are. For instance, because men have a higher body weight and a different percentage of body fat than women, they usually require a different dose of drugs in treatment. However, because this difference is not taken into account, most drugs are prescribed on a one-size-fits-all dosage and women are often given the incorrect amount.

Biased medicine, while often overlooked, can be harmful to women’s health. Symptoms are misdiagnosed or even dismissed altogether due to systemic bias in the medical field. These symptoms, when not taken seriously, can be life-threatening. Heart disease, as well as many other conditions, was only studied in men for decades. The omission of women from these studies still has consequences in today’s medical field, where most health care providers are unaware of the difference in symptoms between women and men. While heart attack symptoms are typically known to be “crushing chest pain”, women have completely different symptoms such as joint pain, nausea, and lightheadedness. The symptoms of a heart attack are often not recognized for what they are and as a result, women often face delayed treatment or are even turned away from emergency rooms altogether. Because they often don’t receive proper care, more women die from heart disease than men.

The bias in the medical field is just one of the many issues that aren’t addressed nearly enough. While it’s not the kind of outright discrimination that gets most people’s attention, it’s a serious problem and it’s been shown to be lethal. While viewing everyone as equal may seem like a good way to combat inequality, our differences in sex, race, gender, sexuality, and ability should be paid attention to, not ignored. By paying attention where it matters, such as in medicine, lives can be saved.

For more information about gender bias: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/03/27/597159133/how-bad-medicine-dismisses-and-misdiagnoses-womens-symptoms

For more information about women’s health: https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/