Gender bias in healthcare is a major issue that is often disregarded. Everyday, women in healthcare are unknowingly being discriminated against. According to a survey done by TODAY, it was found that 52% of women considered gender discrimination in healthcare to be a serious issue as opposed to 36% of men, and that 17% of women felt as if they had been discriminated against on the basis of gender, while only 6% of men felt that way. This bias in perception is even worse for women with chronic diseases, as female patients were found to be more likely to say that their symptoms were not taken seriously. Over ¼ of women with chronic illnesses stated that their healthcare provider ignored or dismissed their symptoms, while 31% said they felt the need to “prove” that their symptoms were real.
Gender bias can be seen in medical research as well. Janine Clayton, MD, states that a huge portion of medical science is grounded in the belief that male and female physiology vary only in terms of sex and reproductive organs. Consequently, most research studies using human cell cultures have used male cells, creating a foundation for gender discrimination that reaches farther back than just the doctor’s office. For many years, women were barred from participating in clinical trials. This was done in part to protect women in childbearing years from potential adverse reproductive effects, but also because researchers didn’t think that they could control for womens’ varying levels of hormones. This makes for an underrepresented sample, as gender impacts many biological functions, physiology, metabolism, disease symptoms, and responses to treatment. Currently, there are several areas in biomedical research where research continues to only be done on male cells or male laboratory animals. Fortunately however, 50% of the samples in NIH-funded clinical studies are female, which has allowed for researchers to gain more knowledge on physiological variation between men and women.
The gender imbalance in healthcare often results in mistreatment, and leaves much room for sexual harassment due to the power that doctors have over interns, medical school students, and residents. Mentoring poses a huge risk to women in medicine, as mentors often have large amounts of time alone with their mentees. Female medical students were 220% more likely to be victims of sexual harassment than women in fields not encompassed in science, engineering, and medicine. Sexual harassment is especially common in emergency medicine and surgical specialties.
Female doctors are also faced with rampant discrimination. Female medical school faculty tend not to climb up the ranks as quickly as their male counterparts. Despite the fact that more women than men are currently enrolled in medical school, only 24% of full medical school professors and 14% of department chairs were female. The percentage of women on Fortune 500’s healthcare and executive teams has been at around 22% since 2015, and only ⅓ of hospital executives are women, making up under 12% of telemedicine CEOs. In addition, when tracking all societal awards since 1945, Silver et al found that several societies had never awarded a female. They are less likely than men to be invited to give grand rounds, and these biases persist even when female candidates were just as qualified as their male counterparts.
Ability is certainly not an excuse for discrimination against women in healthcare; in an examination of 582,000 heart attack cases treated in Florida emergency rooms from 1991 to 2010, it was found that 13.3% of women and 12.6% of men treated by a male doctor died as a result of their health attacks compared to 12% of women and 11.8% of men dying when treated by a female physician. Even so, female surgeons face considerable gender bias, as operating staff often disregard their requests for certain instruments, leaving out crucial equipment for their procedures. They tend to be labeled as “difficult” if they behave like their male colleagues, which impacts their likelihood of receiving opportunities. Additionally, female surgeons often have to deal with microaggressions from patients regularly, who degrade their status with derogatory actions. Using an Implicit Associations Test (IAT), researchers found that participants implicitly linked men with career and women with family, and that healthcare professionals held this bias more strongly than non-healthcare professionals. When testing gender-specialty bias, researchers found that men were implicitly associated with surgery, and women were implicitly associated with family medicine. Arghavan Salles, MD, Ph.D., states that a good way to reduce the presence of gender discrimination in healthcare is by using a blinded review so that hirers don’t know the gender or race of the applicant. With this point in mind, let's rise together and fight against gender discrimination in healthcare.
Written by Lily Sun
Researched by Natasha Koneru