So this is National Women’s History Month. I don’t get it. National Women’s History Month. As if one month is enough. As if One month is enough to describe the contribution of women in Science, sports, medicine, the arts, in leadership, and frankly, the survival of humankind. All despite the overt gender bias in just about every system known.
Seven years ago, I began writing a book about gender bias in medicine. It started as a discussion of the gender bias I saw in medical research. I thought this project was going to take a year to complete. However, I found story after story of discrimination against female patients and female doctors. So many stories that I stalled, wondering how I was going to complete the book. It seems I find a new untold story that needed to be told.
Let me start with one not-so-simple example. There was a belief in medicine, published in Harvard medical texts, that women could not exert themselves in work or study during menstruation without causing harm. That because of menstruation, women could never be superior to men in intellect. “Ha Ha!” you say. We now know that women can most definitely kick a man’s a** at any level, especially during menstruation. You laugh and think, “But that was over a century ago! We have moved on since then in medicine.” Well, my gender-biased friend, I am about to either get you mad (if you are a woman) or confused (if you are a man, which is a natural state for us men in denial).
Because women were thought of as “weak and vulnerable,” they were not included in many medical studies. Women were not allowed to participate in clinical medical trials until 1993! When I was in medical school! There was no Office of Women’s Health in the FDA until after I graduated from medical school. While I was in medical school, some of the female leaders in medicine at that time actually stated:
“Gender bias is not serious in a way that distorts research. It doesn’t serve women well to see sexism where it doesn’t exist.”
Dr. Marcia Angell, Executive Director, The New England Journal of Medicine
This statement from a female physician leader exemplifies how ingrained gender bias is in our health care system. Even female physicians are a part of the discrimination.
Here is the part that will really get you mad. A study on uterine and breast cancer was done at New York City’s Rockefeller University and published in 1986. All the study participants were…….men. Yep, a study on uterine and breast cancer with only men as subjects. The reasoning and explanation of this go way beyond belief and reason and certainly beyond this brief blog. There are multiple examples in the medical literature, such as this one, and when I finish my book, you will read more. Are you mad yet? How about this: Women are looked at in medicine as men with “boobs and tubes.” Not my phrase but that of Dr. Alyson McGregor, who beat me to the punch with her book on gender bias in women’s health.
A special note: If you are a woman of color, this bias is exponential.
I am dedicating all my writing this month to women’s health and women in medical history. I am motivated by my wife, Mom, my sisters, and all my female patients. I hear stories every week of suffering due to this gender bias built into our medical system. I want every woman to know there are doctors out there trying to fight through the gender bias built into this imperfect health care system.
You will be heard.