Compassion and respect towards patients are essential to delivering effective healthcare. Despite advances made by activists and patients alike, the medical field perpetuates its extensive history of sexism, putting women’s lives and well-being at risk. From dismissive doctors to inadequate research, the healthcare gender bias prevents women from receiving the medical services they need and deserve.
Women have long been subjected to harmful medical practices. Since their inception in the 1930s, lobotomies—known as a horror story of ignored medical ethics—were overwhelmingly performed on women. By inserting a needle deep into the brain, surgeons severed the connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain. Originally developed to alleviate anxiety and insomnia, lobotomies were known to leave people more docile and without the ability to feel intense emotions—if they even survived.
The mid-20th century explosion of the pharmaceutical industry also imposed drastic effects on women’s health. Tranquillizers such as Valium were overprescribed to women between the 1950s and 1970s, leading to severe side effects including addiction. Despite these known issues, the excessive prescription of these drugs, aided by the financial incentive associated with it, continued until the drug patents expired in the 2000s.
In addition to women’s behaviour being wrongly pathologized, their legitimate health concerns have also been dismissed and disbelieved for millennia. Medical professionals often wrongly attribute women’s symptoms to stress, mental illness, or vague hormonal imbalances. Even COVID-19 symptoms are more likely to be overlooked in women, despite the urgency of quickly identifying and containing infections.
“Nearly every time I went to the doctor after the age of probably 11, […] the doctor would undermine whatever I was asking about, and […] attribute whatever my ailment was solely to anxiety,” Annie Costello, U1 Arts, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.
Since doctors are less likely to take complaints from women seriously, receiving an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment can be frustrating and exhausting. Long lists of personal anecdotes demonstrate that women often suffer years of unnecessary pain and illness before their medical issues are identified. Such diagnostic delays put women’s lives at risk, and are responsible for up to 80,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
“I definitely have maintained that self-doubt every time I go to the doctor, even anytime I feel ill,” Costello said. “Every time I go, I get convinced it is something I am making up. It’s beyond frustrating at this point because I don’t actually know now if I actually am ill.”
Although medical sexism puts all women at risk, other layers of oppression only serve to compound the issue. Modern gynecology in North America is built on the brutal abuse of enslaved women, and this legacy had led to Black women still facing damaging disparities in healthcare access. Indigenous women, as well as undocumented immigrant women detained in the U.S., have long been subjected to forced sterilization, with cases reported in Canada as recently as 2017.
High medical costs and inaccessible care have devastating effects on poor and unhoused women, who are often forced to neglect health issues. Disabled women also face a variety of sociocultural, financial, and structural barriers when accessing medical care. Queer women are also subjected to discrimination in medical institutions; preventative screenings for cervical cancer are less common due to the false assumption that lesbian women are at a lower risk for this disease. Trans women, as well as all other trans people, frequently face prejudice and neglect from medical professionals. Additionally, recent health protection rollbacks under the Trump administration leave them at severe risk of discrimination.
Even when illnesses are correctly diagnosed, treatment options available to women can be severely limited. There is a glaring lack of research into health issues that predominantly affect women, and also into the ways sex and gender influence the consequences of common illnesses—medical studies by the National Institutes of Health were not mandated to include female subjects until 1993.
Inadequate funding is another major factor in this research gap, according to Dr. Lucy Gilbert, professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and the Department of Oncology at McGill.
“You first have to publish and do the research, and then ask for the money,” Gilbert said in an interview with the Tribune. “You need money to do the research, but they won’t give you money unless you do the research and show that you are getting results.”
Health concerns affecting the female reproductive system are particularly neglected, despite their high prevalence among cisgender women, transgender men, and non-binary people assigned female at birth. Two common diseases are polycystic ovary syndrome, which can lead to mood disorders, diabetes, infertility, and endometriosis, a cause of chronic pain and fatigue. Despite these two illnesses affecting up to 18 and 10 per cent of cisgender women respectively, doctors still do not know what causes them or how to cure them.
The medical literature on how these diseases affect transgender people—as well as the potential impacts of hormone therapy—is exceedingly small. Additionally, they may face barriers and stigma in accessing reproductive healthcare.
Common medical issues affect women in unique ways, as disease prevalence, medication dosage, and symptoms vary based on sex and gender. Many medical trials actively exclude women, leading to a large gap in information on how medications affect half of the human population.
A wide range of illnesses are exacerbated by this lack of gender-conscious medical research. Women are less likely to recognize the symptoms of heart attacks as well as seek and receive appropriate care. Though the biological causes behind Alzheimer’s disease have yet to be elucidated, two-thirds of patients with Alzheimer’s disease are women. Lung cancer is currently the deadliest form of cancer among women, and is twice as likely to occur in women in a non-smoking population—proposed theories include women’s exposure to secondhand smoking and differences in biological reactions to nicotine, but there is no scientific consensus explaining the troubling statistic.
Although there is still much work to be done, positive advances have been made in a variety of fields. Significant research has contributed to reduced mortality rates for breast cancer, cervical cancer, and cardiovascular disease in women. Additionally, the proportion of female doctors in several countries has been consistently increasing over the past decades.
“People have begun to understand that women have a lot to offer, that we are the intellectual equals of men,” Gilbert said. “At top levels, there’s a huge gap still […] and this must be bridged. A few women pushing through the glass ceiling will not be enough, the whole glass ceiling must come down.”
Increasing education and awareness is also an essential step to empowering and protecting women. Medical Herstory, a non-profit founded by gender health equity advocate and McGill alumna Tori Ford, BA ‘19, is focussed on giving women a voice and helping them navigate the murky waters of the healthcare system, through workshops on patient advocacy and medical education.
“[Part of Medical Herstory’s mission] is about empowering young people, how to advocate for yourself in medical settings, and also acknowledging why it is so difficult, why do you feel like you don’t have enough time, like you can’t find your voice,” Ford said in an interview with the Tribune.
Ford emphasized the importance of community-building and connecting with others, on top of providing people with the tools they need to demand adequate healthcare.
“Unfortunately, we like to think about the medical system as this benevolent system, but it’s really not and it causes a lot of harm,” Ford said. “Finding ways to protect yourself, to know your rights, and to get the care you deserve [is essential].”