Stop Misunderstanding the Gender Health Gap

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Well, if weight is being used here as a proxy for sex or gender, a larger woman would require a higher dose; Smaller dose to the younger man. So why wouldn't you use weight as a measurement for how much dose a person should receive? This would be a much more effective way of decision making. But since we collect data according to certain lines and not according to others, the guidelines are written according to certain lines and not according to others.

To give another example, sometimes when women come forward, their pain is not fully appreciated. Women are statistically more likely than men to go to the doctor when they have pain. But then common myths and assumptions start to emerge: “It's not that serious.” “She's going crazy.”

So there are lots to choose from. It's this choice that we don't often bother with. We just notice a difference, and then become responsible for something, without knowing what the root cause is.

So how can we get better at separating gender bias and sexism to narrow the gender health gap?

To me, it's about taking medicine to the next level of investigation, which is to the level of social determinants of health. Many of the things that kill most of us have a large social or environmental component. Things like diet, stress, how we are treated in society.

Research on the impact of sexism and racism, and the impact of other social factors, on health has only begun relatively recently. The job you do, your status as a married person or not, can also impact your health.

So there are all these little pieces where research is needed, and it's an ongoing project. It's not like you'll only ever study the effects of being married or a stay-at-home wife on your health. Because those social factors are always changing.

Sex and gender are one aspect of this social story. But it is important to understand where it can be appropriately applied. Sometimes gender is relevant, sometimes not. Sometimes sex matters, sometimes not.

What's standing in the way of things getting better?

Well, research funding agencies are more interested in looking inside our bodies to see why things are the way they are. The outside world is more difficult to study, because social conditions are always changing. They can vary greatly between homes, even within homes. It is very difficult to collect data on social conditions.

But we are at the stage where we can learn a lot from tracking people's mobile phone activities. Data about what people are eating, their movements, how active they are, is being collected. Eventually we will be able to create personalized pictures of people, and stop making generalizations about people in groups and assume they are typical of that group, and then understand them as complex individuals.

Who is making progress in understanding and closing the gender health gap?

Sarah Richardson's team at Harvard University – she runs the GenderScience Lab – has done incredible work in breaking down the causes of gender health disparities. They are asking medical researchers to think very carefully about the context of the conditions they are investigating.

The team did a great job during the pandemic. Initially there were all these very absurd claims about gender differences with the virus – for example, that women were protected because on average they have stronger immune systems. They showed that if you look at the data, that's actually not true. They helped dispel the pseudoscientific notion that the virus was affecting all populations equally, and helped end the neglect of demographic patterns as a factor in Covid, the kind of jobs people were holding , who were frontline workers, etc.

This work around sex contextualism is, as Richardson says, a really compelling model for how to think about sex and gender in research.

Hear Angela Saini speak at WIRED Health's 10th anniversary event in King's Place, London on March 19. Get tickets at health.wired.com,