What is the gender pain gap?

Stereotypes come into play

Australia will set up a National Women’s Health Advisory Council to deal with gender pain gap. Women experience more chronic pain conditions than men, but studies show that their pain is often downplayed or under-treated by health care providers. A gender pain gap report by pharmaceutical brand Nurofen says that one in two women who sought medical help for pain was either ignored or dismissed because of gender.

Health experts say that the bias against women’s expressions of pain negatively affects their health outcome. A 2018 study analysing journals published in western countries since 2001 on sex, gender and pain revealed that terms like ‘sensitive’, ‘malingering’, ‘complaining’ and ‘hysterical’ were applied more frequently to pain reports from women. In the 2001 paper ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain’, Diane Hoffman and Anita Tarzian say that “women report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, but are nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively”.

When women are treated in the exam room, stereotypes come into play. A study last year in the Journal of Pain indicated that when caregivers saw videos of patients in chronic pain, they automatically estimated the women’s pain as lower than that of men. The study said that they were more likely to recommend a psychological treatment to women and an analgesic treatment for men. Interestingly, laypeople also underestimated the pain experienced by women when they were subjected to a similar experiment. In a study on laypeople who watched men and women doing identical rehab exercises, “the perceivers rated the women as being in less pain and more likely to benefit from psychotherapy, while men, they said, would need medication”.

Medical experts suggest that gender-based bias could lead to disasters. For instance, a recent study showed that when women face chest pain, they may face longer delays in getting treatment than men. ‘Gender pain gap’ is a global problem; recently, the expression #medicalmisogyny gained more than 4.5 million views on TikTok. Medical misogyny does not mean that doctors are sexist, but that there is a historic gap in knowledge about women’s bodies and their health.

Now, Australia has become the first country to officially identify the existence of such a problem. Ged Kearney, Australia’s assistant minister for health and aged care, will lead the National Women’s Health Advisory Council. The council will examine women’s biological risk factors for major diseases like cancer and heart disease, disorders such as autism, and other overlooked conditions like endometriosis.