Gender pain gap: Doctor, doctor, I feel invisible by Beth

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“Doctor, Doctor, I feel invisible.”


A survey conducted by the National Pain Report found the majority of women interviewed were told at least once by a doctor that they would have to live with chronic physical pain, and nearly half being told that “the pain is all in your head”.

Even in doctors’ rooms, women’s voices are received with doubt, and rest on potentially lethal stereotypes. It comes down to the idea that men’s pain and the symptoms they describe are almost always seen as organic and legitimate, compared to women’s, which are interpreted as psychological – you know, hysterical.

Women and men experience pain differently, yet most medical research is based on what societies think of as the ‘default’ person – the man. Even drugs aimed specifically at women can fall into the misogynist trap. The FDA approved the explicitly gendered ‘Female Viagra’, when the study was conducted on 23 men and 2 women.

Unsurprisingly however, female-specific conditions, like endometriosis can take up to 10 years for an accurate diagnosis due to a reliance on male-centric research, a disbelief in women’s voices, and the idea that a woman’s health is determined by her reproductive capacity. This persisting myth shifts the focus away from real illnesses many women face, with many doctors globally failing to realise that heart disease is the number one cause of death in women worldwide.

In Is Medicine’s Gender Bias Killing Young Women? we are shown the magnitude of this problem. The medical community’s ignorance of female pain, specifically heart disease, has meant more women than men have died each year from cardiovascular-related cases since 1984.

When we only research men and come to view how they describe symptoms as a genuine marker of illnesses, we fail women. This is why women can be in the middle of a heart attack and be misdiagnosed and even discharged whilst experiencing its pain! There is a lack of acknowledgement that experiences of pain differs between people, especially men and women.

Women’s voices in both medicine and other parts of society, are received with doubt because of a long, entrenched history within our culture of regarding women’s reasoning capacity as limited, but fortunately, there is an increasing sensitivity to the gender bias in medical diagnosis and women’s experiences of pain.

Even more importantly however, women are becoming more confident in the legitimacy of their pain. The person who knows how you feel better than anyone, is you, but the way people are received, and how their symptoms are interpreted still rests on patriarchal standards.

As long as we keep demanding better treatment and feeling more and more secure in our voice, medicine will fulfill its purpose; to help heal, and in the meantime, we can all help each other in being heard.

NB: The term ‘women’ in this article refers to all women, not just cis. Of course, women are not homogenous and so experience medical interactions hugely differently. WoC, NB people, LGBTQAI+ people, working class, and less able people experience even more inhibiting stereotypes and prejudices in medical interactions and diagnoses.

Picture courtesy of Amy Jutras

Beth is about to start her Masters in Global Health at Glasgow, after studying Social Anthropology at Cambridge, and Fine Art at Leeds. Whilst fighting for equality, Beth can be found erratically trying to be an adult and perfecting the right garlic balance for meals. Find Beth on Twitter @bacloughton or Instagram @bacloughton.

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