Maryanne Sheldon //
Medicine and the science behind it have been inherently biased throughout human history. Women, especially women of color, have been consistently ignored because their bodies were considered the outlier. In religion, government, and society at large, white male bodies have been seen as the norm, the template body plan to base everything on. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle described female genitalia as the inverse of the male’s, marking women as the abnormal sex compared to men (Cleghorn). This ideology held true in science and medicine as well, resulting in the exclusion of female bodies from medical studies for thousands of years (Jackson). In the United States, clinical trials focused almost exclusively on men until 1990, when the National Institutes of Health created the Office of Research on Women’s Health (Billock). This trend of leaving women out of studies until recently, is true for most nations in North America and Europe. The repercussions of this grievous discrimination in medicine are still being felt today.
Women around the world, even in relatively wealthy western societies, are constantly subjected to the effects of this systematic exclusion. The female body is still largely a mystery to the doctors, nurses, and practitioners whose job is to address women’s health issues. Drugs and treatments that are tested only on the male body often cause different side effects or don’t work properly in female bodies because they were not crafted with women in mind. Studies on chronic conditions often use males to represent the whole species, which has led to women consistently being misdiagnosed or even dismissed with no diagnosis at all. This has caused doctors to ignore or trivialize female pain because it did not align with the male-centric studies that their medical training is based on (Billock). This lack of information has also led to the harmful stereotype that women are more emotional and dramatic, creating the misconception that female accounts of their own health are less valid (Jackson). This inequitable treatment has hurt women’s mental health, physical health, and emotional wellbeing. It also has effects outside of the healthcare system because failure to properly address the health of over 50% of the human population harms society at large.
This incredibly significant issue is just starting to be addressed in scientific research and medical trials. However, much more must be done to fix thousands of years of inadequate data on women’s health. There must also be a shift in how healthcare providers listen to women about their health, or else female bodies will continue to be misdiagnosed and misunderstood.
Author’s note: This article was inspired by the book “Unwell Women” by Elinor Cleghorn
Billock, Jennifer. “Pain Bias: The Health Inequality Rarely Discussed.” BBC Future, BBC, 22 May 2018, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180518-the-inequality-in-how-women-are-treated-for-pain.
Cleghorn, Elinor. “The Long History of Gender Bias in Medicine.” Time, Time, 17 June 2021, https://time.com/6074224/gender-medicine-history/.
Jackson, Gabrielle. “The Female Problem: How Male Bias in Medical Trials Ruined Women’s Health.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Nov. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/nov/13/the-female-problem-male-bias-in-medical-trials.