Women’s Health Care: Understanding the Gender Gap

a little girl is on a laptop computer while the mother is busy working

When we talk about women at work, we often refer to gender gaps in pay and promotional opportunities. The gender gaps carry over to women’s health care — which often gets overlooked in the discussion of what female employees need to succeed. Learn why simply providing health benefits is not always enough.

A two-fold challenge

The traditional role of women as nurturers is still the norm in our society. Many women are too busy caring for others to care for themselves. The needs of parents, children, co-workers, clients, and friends come first. Many women find it hard to say “no” and step back. 

“We have data telling us that there are record levels of stress among female workers,” says Veronica Villalobos, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Allegheny Health Network. “About 46% say they experience stress every day. They feel like it’s always a state of being.” 

Yet, when women do seek care, they often face gender bias. Bias is not always intentional, but nonetheless remains a challenge. Negative experiences with health care providers can discourage women from proactively managing their health and wellness. [KS1]Picked up from previous SME interview about Health Champions

Self-care comes last

Women often put self-care on the back burner. This is especially true for women who are taking care of someone else full time. That could be a child with special needs, a spouse with a chronic illness, or an aging parent or other relative.

The nonprofit Transamerica Institute studied family caregivers and found that:

  • 52% are employed.
  • 28% have been at odds with their employers due to caregiving duties.
  • 55% say they are physically and emotionally drained.
  • 55% admit to putting their own health last.

It’s expected that the number of family caregivers will only increase as the Baby Boomer generation ages.

Gender bias exacerbates the problem

The 2020 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) and found that nearly 90% of all people — women as well as men — worldwide have biases against women. Bias is both intended and unintended or based on outdated stereotypes, beliefs, and practices. Women everywhere feel its effects when seeking health care. 

A study in Pain Research and Management reviewed the literature on gendered norms for individuals with chronic pain. The researchers found providers treat men and women with chronic pain symptoms differently. Doctors in the study discounted women’s pain as exaggerated. Further, the men were deemed “brave” and “stoic” for tolerating their pain, while the women were judged as “sensitive” and “hysterical.” 

Another study looked at physician bias toward female heart attack patients. Findings indicated that women are more likely to die of a heart attack when treated by a male physician. Even though heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, heart attacks are often still viewed as a men’s health issue.

How employers can make a difference

Understanding women’s health challenges is where change begins. There are basic steps that employers can take to help the women in their workforce get and stay healthy. These include:

Promoting preventive care

General preventive care should include annual physicals, lab work, immunizations, and age-specific health screenings such as mammograms and bone density tests. Mothers-to-be also need to take time for prenatal care.

Maximizing health benefits

Employees leave health care dollars on the table every year. Make sure everyone knows exactly what benefits, discounts, and community programs they are entitled to and how to access them.

Building a culture of health

Give working women flexible time off to care for themselves and their families. Remove any lasting stigma around mental health care. Let all employees know that their wellness comes first — good health powers productivity.

Engaging women’s health champions

Executive sponsors and other women from across the company can play a role in supporting their colleagues by sharing their experiences and advice. “You want to embed people throughout the organization who can help employees find their way,” says Villalobos.

Acknowledging health observances

There’s always a timely reason to talk about women’s health and wellness. Popular health observances include American Heart Month in February, National Women’s Health Week in May, and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. 

The gender gap in women’s health care is a global issue. We’re not going to solve it quickly. But each of us can improve our own little piece of the world — for the women we work with, live with, and care about.

  • Hindawi. Journals. Pain Research and Management. “Brave Men” and “Emotional Women”: A Theory-Guided Literature Review on Gender Bias in Health Care and Gendered Norms towards Patients with Chronic Pain

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