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Choose to challenge for women’s health on this International Women's Day

Today, you could be taking the time to reflect on the inspirational achievements of many women across the world. Or maybe you’re a woman yourself, and you want to take pride in all that you’ve achieved? Ultimately, no matter who or where you are, it’s a time to celebrate the achievements of women.

International Women's Day brings an opportunity for women across the world to call for change. And you might be wondering why, when there’s so much that women have achieved for us to celebrate? While you’re right, unfortunately there is still a long way to go in achieving equality for women, especially when it comes to healthcare.

#ChooseToChallenge

In healthcare, women are often underrepresented and less considered. Whether it’s their job roles, the opportunities that are available to them, their ability to be involved in clinical research, or their health-related experiences being ignored when they seek help, there are many factors that show it is clear there is still a long way to go for women to achieving equality. And unfortunately, their health outcomes are often impacted because of this inequality.

The three key themes below around women representation in health explain why there is a clear need for change and why it’s important to #ChooseToChallenge. We hope by reading this, you’ll join us in assisting women to be in a position of power to make informed decisions about their health.

Two reasons why you should choose to challenge

#1 Women are missing from the data

As many women and their experiences are underrepresented or silenced, statistics don’t always represent the full truth. But today, we’re bringing them to light.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the inequalities. In fact, earlier this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that “COVID-19 could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women's rights”.

As an example of this, many are unaware that women make up 70% of the health workforce. Yet, despite this number, women are still paid much less than their male counterparts and hold fewer leadership positions in the health sector. And more recently, women have often not been reflected in the national or global decision-making on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With social distancing measures, school closures and overburdened health systems, there’s now an increased demand on women and girls to cater to the basic survival needs of the family and care for the sick and the elderly. It’s clear that as a result of existing gender norms, and the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased demand for unpaid childcare and domestic work on women.

Although the inclusion of women in clinical research has improved in recent years, many newer studies aren’t analysing the sex differences. Plus, there’s evidence out there that women are still underrepresented in clinical trials. Let’s take cardiovascular disease (CVD) clinical trials, for example. CVD is the leading cause of death amongst both men and women. Yet, an analysis of data from ClinicalTrials.gov found that women represented less than 40% of the people enrolled in heart disease and stroke clinical research.

Previously, researchers justified the inequality and exclusion of women in research, as women’s bodies were seen to be “too complex”. But there can be no more excuses. Some of the reasons for the imbalance of participants may be down to women not wanting to take part, due to concerns around childcare, or work and family life. However, it’s the industry’s responsibility to consider situations like this. The industry needs to take ownership of the barriers that are preventing women from taking part and develop solutions to overcome them, so that both men and women and take part.

Black, Asian, and minority ethnic women are more likely to experience a lower quality of healthcare compared to white women. And the result of this? Poorer health outcomes and reports of worse experiences with NHS services.

For example, did you know that Black women have more than five times the risk of dying in pregnancy or up to six weeks postpartum, compared with white women? Information like this isn’t often in the spotlight, and further confirms that stats like these are being silenced. This needs to change. Statistics like this need to be shared far and wide to raise awareness of the current racial inequalities, because all women deserve to have access to the same quality of healthcare. International Women’s Day is an opportunity for us to tackle the racial inequalities in women’s healthcare once and for all.

#2 Women health experience is often anchored in taboo

Lack of awareness and knowledge around women’s health is common for healthcare professionals (HCPs). For years, a lot of funding for clinical trials went to conditions which either affected both men and women, or just men. And it wasn’t until 1993 that research trials in the United States were required to include women by the National Institutes of Health.

We could argue that this underrepresentation of women in health means that we have missed out on opportunities to develop potentially lifesaving treatments. In addition, treatment options for women, as well as our understanding of how women experience certain diseases, continue to delay diagnoses or leave conditions left untreated.

This underrepresentation of women in clinical research has further implications, it supports ongoing taboos around women’s health, with women sometimes themselves not wanting to talk about it for fear of it being dismissed or not taken seriously. It’s time that more conversations take place about this. Women and their experiences must be heard. Women deserve answers when it comes to their own healthcare. It’s time to make a change.

A hopeful opportunity

It’s days like today that gives us the opportunity to create widespread change. Where women can come together and call for action. So, let’s cut to the chase: what can we do?

#1 Call for change in women’s leadership roles in the health sector

Women in leadership positions is a conversation that needs to be had. We need to improve access to leadership, decision-making and power for women. At a company and system level, there are things that can be done, such as increasing the communication and awareness of the issue, focusing on training and mentorship programmes, or ensuring work-life integration.

#2 Help to make clinical trials more accessible for women

We need to get to the root of why women are being underrepresented in clinical trials and tackle each barrier with an effective solution. For example, if childcare is an issue — could some of the clinical trial visits take place at home, so women do not need to arrange childcare for the day?

Gathering insights from women to find out the barriers to taking part in clinical trials can be a good start, for us to use that information and take action.

#3 Donate to female-focused charities

There are many female-focused charities out there that are supporting women to achieve equality. For example, take a look at the work that UN Women are doing in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Donating to these charities can help ensure that women across the world continue to be supported for as long as they need to be.

#4 Educate and raise awareness about global health issues and the people that impact them

Spreading the word about different conditions, and the people they impact, can help to call for change. For example, raising awareness of the conditions that affect women more than men, and those that show clear racial disparities in women, can help to put this underrepresentation of women into perspective and why it’s so important for them to be included in clinical research. This page can help to keep track of awareness days throughout the year.

#ChooseToChallenge

This challenge should not be for just one day. Long-term changes need to be made to truly achieve women’s equality. So, let’s not allow this day to pass us by without a call for change and from now on, continue to fight for women’s representation in healthcare.

While the themes mentioned in this blog may shock you, there is hope, and an opportunity for us to turn this around together. Will you join us in choosing to challenge?

This blog was originally published here.

8th March 2021

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