Count Her In – The Gender Pain Gap

Our Creative Residents share their thoughts in response to International Women’s Day 2024.

Words by Sigrid (she/her), 21 QLD

 

Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress.

Research has shown that when women are empowered economically, our health improves. So, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, I bring you the science behind yet another reason to Count Her In.

This year’s United Nations’ International Women’s Day theme, Count Her In, calls for more economic inclusion for women and girls. While the Gender Pay Gap in Australia is narrowing, women still earn only 87 cents to every man’s $1. But the inequalities don’t stop there.

Even in health, women are disadvantaged. The Gender Pain Gap describes how women and girls are more likely to experience chronic pain than men, and yet are less likely to receive adequate treatment.

Women get sicker, but men die quicker

In 2022, a revolutionary study across 19 different countries in Europe found that women experience more pain than men. This is especially true for chronic pain (pain that lasts far longer than expected), with women and girls experiencing higher rates from as young as two years old.

There actually exists a scientifically crazy paradox related to this. The expression “women get sicker but men die quicker” is used to describe the difference in life expectancies between women and men. In Australia, men “die quicker”, with an average life expectancy of 81.2 years, compared to 85.3 years for women. However, this extra 4.1 years is not the advantage for women that you’d expect. Despite living longer, women spend far more years with ill-health.

Why? Well, that’s the golden question. While some argue its purely biological, the reality is that most gender inequalities in health are socially-produced by systems (governments, policies, and ways of thinking) that favour men at the disadvantage of women. Sex and gender affect all aspects of health, so it’s certainly time we start considering all sexes and genders in healthcare and research.

Dudes as the default

For decades, male rodents have been used as the default in scientific testing. It was originally thought that anatomical differences like hormone levels and menstrual cycles would make data from female rodents more unpredictable, and therefore produce unreliable data. It wasn’t until 2016 that this assumption was completely debunked – data from female rats is just as reliable as from male rats – however, the damage had already been done: in many cases, female test subjects (both rodents and humans) were simply not used.

While scientific policies are now being introduced to correct this practice in research, the repercussions of this erroneous decision are largely undiscussed. For example, many pain relief medications in use today were not tested on female rodents, meaning both that the prescribed dosages can be inaccurate for women, and that women are twice as likely than men to experience side effects.

Dudes are the default in funding as well. Chances are, if it’s a disease that mainly affects women (like headaches, migraines and endometriosis), it’s underfunded. Even when these diseases actually have a far higher burden on the population (they affect far more people in total), funding in Australia still favours health issues that mainly affect men (like HIV/AIDs).


Them: “HIV/AIDs can kill people, but headaches don’t… doesn’t the funding just go to whichever disease is the worse?”

Me: WRONG. If this was true, then Ovarian cancer, the 5th deadliest cancer in the U.S., would have the 5th most funding across cancer research. Instead, it ranks 12th, likely because it’s a disease that only affects women.


The importance of listening

Ever felt dismissed when talking to a healthcare professional? You’re not alone. Women and girls report far more experiences of not being taken seriously, or being told “it’s all in your head”, when seeking medical advice compared to their male counterparts. Societal stereotypes that paint women as “too emotional” are to blame.


Them: “Men only go to the doctor when we are really in pain, that’s why we are believed.”

Me: WRONG. Research shows that women and men are equally as likely to seek medical advice when in pain. But because many people, even healthcare professionals, believe this common misconception that women are more emotional, women are far more likely to be dismissed.


But the Victorian Government is finally listening. After releasing survey findings that confirmed how common and debilitating chronic pain is for Victorian women, the Victorian Department of Health has just announced an official, Australian-first investigation into the Gender Pain Gap. The Inquiry into Women’s Pain (2024) seeks to consult Victorian women and girls aged 12 years and up with lived experience of pain, to understand how treatment and care can be improved. Timed perfectly with the lead up to International Women’s Day, this is a huge step in the right direction to ensure that we can Count Her In.

But this still isn’t enough. As I’ve explained, even our scientific understanding of pain is inherently misogynistic, and as such, we don’t understand nearly enough about how the burden of pain disproportionately affects women. And yet, how can we expect anything less when funding for research into women’s health issues is even more abysmally disproportionate?

To truly Count Her In this International Women’s Day, Australia needs to invest in scientific research led by women for women. It is only by taking women’s health issues seriously that we can accelerate progress towards an equal future for all.

 

Submissions to The Inquiry into Women’s Pain are open to Victorian women and girls aged 12 years and up until March 12th, 2024. Click here to have your voice heard.

 

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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