Finally the UK has noticed its rampant sexism in healthcare. What now?
Ministers are concerned about women’s health, they have declared today. Many women who have been shouting about glaring health inequalities for far too long may be forgiven for saying under their breaths: about bloody time.
In many countries men face greater health risks, but not in the UK. A study from Manual, a wellbeing platform for men, has found the UK has the largest female health gap among G20 countries and the 12th largest globally.
Research published by the House of Lords earlier this year pointed out that study after study showed poorer outcomes for women. In 2016, researchers at University College London found that women with dementia received worse medical treatment than men with the condition, made fewer visits to the GP, received less health monitoring and took more potentially harmful medication.
Women, in particular young women, are also more likely to experience common mental health conditions than men, despite the fact that men account for about three-quarters of deaths registered as suicide.
The inequalities start well before women make it to their doctor’s surgery. Women are routinely underrepresented in clinical trials, and medical research proposed by women, for women, is not allotted the same funding as medical research proposed by men, for, you guessed it, men.
Tireless work by the campaigner and writer Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates that, as she states in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, healthcare is “systematically discriminating against women, leaving them chronically misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed”.
Sexism is still rampant in healthcare, not least among staff. Despite the fact the NHS workforce is dominated by women, men working in NHS trusts are still paid more than their female peers.
It permeates the system, from women’s pain being dismissed by their GPs, to women struggling to get the menopause drugs they need on the NHS. The consequences can be catastrophic. In June 2020 a government inquiry found that an arrogant culture in which serious medical complications were dismissed as “women’s problems” contributed to a string of healthcare scandals over several decades.
A recognition today by the women’s health minister Maria Caufield that there were “shocking” cases among the 100,000 women who answered a government consultation is welcome, as is the announcement that there will be a women’s health ambassador.
The creation of a menopause taskforce rides a wave of greater understanding of a condition that affects half the population but was, until very recently, taboo. And it is good to see that campaigners’ calls to ban hymen restoration surgery have finally been heeded after the government earlier promised to ban virginity testing.
But gender inequality in healthcare runs deep. Recognising, as the government has today, that system-wide changes are needed to tackle “decades of gender health inequality” is a vital first step yet, as Criado-Perez has said, women have been considered less important in healthcare as far back as Ancient Greece.
This spring’s Women’s Health Strategy will need to have a lot more meat, in particular a commitment to sex-disaggregated data within a healthcare system still providing PPE designed for men to many of its staff – and years of sustained funding if that is to be reversed.