Opinion

Women Are Dying Because Of The Sex Disparity In Medical Research

Source: Cultural Practice

Gender inequality still persists in many sectors. Health is one of those. But women cannot be dying due to the lack of research and information available about their bodies.

By Bethany Dawson

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight the grand achievements of gender equality movements, as well as to recognise the steps that still need to be made.

It’s not unusual, unfortunately, to face people who laud that feminism is now unnecessary, that the world has “never been better” for women, and that we can go about our daily business without concern about gender inequality. Maybe this argument is backed up by statistics on the number of women in high powered jobs, or an argument about the fact we’ve now had two Prime Ministers who were women. The fact of the matter, however, is that equality still has great lengths to reach. In some cases – specifically those that exist within the medical field – these imbalances are killing women, or rather, those assigned female at birth[1].  

Bedside manner, and the way in which women are seen within the social aspect of the medical field, is hugely biased against women. For example, a qualitative study run by Werner and Malterud (2003) found that women specifically must work to ensure they emit an impression that does not “appear too strong or too weak, too healthy or too sick, or too smart or too disarranged” seeking advice or treatment from a doctor from chronic conditions without a clear cause. This does not simply cause emotional hardship and adds to the suffering that comes alongside living with an idiopathic disease, but this can – and does – lead to misdiagnoses of women disproportionately.

Turning to look at the quantitative evidence for sexism within medicine, the data does not elicit a sigh of relief. Women represent only 18% of participants in trials for endovascular occlusion devices, and only 32% of participants in studies on coronary stents, despite the latter being an issue that affects women with a much higher degree of severity than it does men. This sex-based disparity has wide-reaching implications, from drugs being inefficient in treating health conditions effectively for women, to waiting years for a diagnosis, to women dying from conditions that are treatable, but only if the research is done.

Studies show the women are up to 60% more likely to be misdiagnosed when having a heart attack. This is in part due to women not having the “Hollywood heart attack” of severe chest pains and shooting sensations down the left arm – symptoms which largely apply to men suffering a heart attack. How a heart attack affects women is largely unknown and hugely under-discussed, so when women present with symptoms of a heart attack – stomach pains, nausea, and fatigue – it is often missed as the medical emergency it is.

Such striking differences in the symptomatic presentation of heart attacks lend credence to the notion that medical research should have an equal gender-split within the samples, yet in 31 landmark studies on congestive heart failure between 1987 – 2012, only 25% of the samples were comprised of women. Research which proportionately represents the health problems of women simply isn’t being done . Adding more proof to this claim, women are 70% more likely to suffer from depression than men, but animal studies on brain disorders are five times as likely to be done on male animals.

Poor research on the effect of drugs on women also has wide-reaching implications. For example, it has been recommended that people – regardless of sex – take a low dose of aspirin daily in order to prevent severe health emergencies such as a heart attack or strokes. However, there has been little research on the intersectional effects of aspirin, and the same can be said for many common drugs. In fact, the research that has been conducted on aspirin shows that it may have no effect, or harmful effects, on women in comparison to the positive effects it can have on men.

This inequality is not an annoyance for women, or a simple misfortune, but these oversights are killing women. An overhaul of the medical field is needed, and yes, this isn’t simple. This is not something that can be amended with an empowering slogan, a raised fist, or a “fuck you Patriarchy”. To stop women dying, this situation needs to be highlighted as the endangering human rights abuse that it is.

International Women’s Day is often commodified as a day to proudly wear girl power T-shirts and allow large companies to capitalise off of posed equality. On this International Women’s Day, we need to recognise the lengths equality still has to go to in order to save lives.


[1] This article is in recognition of those assigned the female sex at birth. This includes people of all genders – transgender men, non-binary people, and cisgender women. 

Bethany Dawson is a placement year Politics and Sociology student at the University of Surrey. She writes here in a personal capacity and not as Deputy Editor of Incite.

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