Women’s Access to Health; Why So Tricky?

Identifying as a feminist is still seen as a polarizing distinction to make these days.  Or at least from where I’m standing.  People who have never had to personally confront the reality of our country’s violent history seem to be eager to move on from accepting responsibility for the racist and male dominated fabric of what America was built on.  It’s easy for people of privilege to see this past as something that doesn’t affect our society today, something we all need to stop complaining about, and just move on.  The fact of the matter is,  this fabric is deeply woven into our cultural, economic, and social structures; and continues to affect the quality of people’s lives today. Part of the foundation of The United States is the perception of white male dominance, which manifests today as unconscious biases which perpetuate major disparities in social equity; dependent on the race, gender, and social-economic status of a person.  

The structures that exist in our country cater toward white men, creating barriers for other races and gender identities access to a greater quality of life. Our perception of women as a society, for example, is extremely rigid; women are criticized constantly for their emotions and appearances, affecting their self perception as well as how they experience the world. One example of this structure in effect manifests in the research we have which shows huge disproportions between men and women affected by violence, women being at a much higher risk. Our perception of women as a society is extremely rigid, women are criticized constantly for their emotions and appearances; affecting their self perception as well as how they experience the world.  Although some people tend to believe that men and women are treated and considered equally, disparities like what we see when we look at violence against women, suggests otherwise.

(Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

 Our perception of women and history of mysogyny have not only left us with women being at higher risk of violence, but we also have little understanding of women’s bodies, which affects our access to health equity today.  In the 20th century, medical research primarily focused on young white men, and it wasn’t until 1993 that women were required to be included in most medical research studies.  Because of this, medical research on women has fallen behind the curve. 

This focus on men in medical research has led to huge gaps when it comes to knowledge of the female body. You can imagine the effect that this has had on women’s health today.  On average, women are more likely to experience chronic conditions in their lifetime, and although they live longer lives, their quality of life, on average, is found to be lower than men. A lack of medical research on women could explain why women are disproportionately affected by chronic illness, but unconscious biases also affect these disparities, as our perception of women as a society affects our approach to treatment.  Research has found that women are much more likely to be referred to a psychologist for chronic pain, while men are more often referred to a clinic for treatment of that pain.  This suggests that our social perceptions of women could affect how they are treated in the medical field; as we are quick to see a woman in pain and suspect a psychological diagnosis.  There are many factors at play here that could explain why women report a lower quality of life than men.  It is clear that modern medical research was centered around men’s bodies, excluding many identities.  This structure actively puts women’s lives in danger, as our bodies can respond to treatment much differently than men, and our lack of understanding in general can have great repercussions.  For example,  women make up just 34% of cardiac health research, even though cardiac complications disproportionately affect women. Many drugs designed for cardiac health, too, have only been tested on men.  Even the universally understood symptoms of a heart attack are related to how heart attacks affect men.  Research has shown that women often experience symptoms of a heart attack much differently, making them much less likely to seek treatment, get help, and more likely to die because of it.

It’s important that we, as a society, learn how to confront these disparities in order to make a space for other peoples experiences in the world to be understood and considered.  As it stands now, the structure works to protect only some, at the expense of many.  Women in-particular are made vulnerable when it comes to the medical field, as they are more often misdiagnosed, more likely have little to no access to health care, and in general, women are historically not prioritized in medical research. Women, and particularly black and brown women, are some of the most at-risk citizens in our society when it comes to leading safe and healthy lives.

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