Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynecological health problem. There is five times more research into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women.
Several books have been written in the past year about the female body and the impact a lack of knowledge can have on diagnosis and treatment. They include Emma Barnett’s Period, Eleanor Morgan’s Hormonal, and Gabrielle Jackson’s Pain and Prejudice, which draws on her experience of being diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronically underfunded condition. Lynn Enright wrote Vagina: A Re-education. She was looking for research on pain and women’s health, only to be shocked by how little data she found.
“Women have been woefully neglected in studies on pain. Most of our understanding of ailments comes from the perspective of men; it is overwhelmingly based on studies of men, carried out by men,” Enright says.
Given that in the US, which produces a lot of medical research, research trials weren’t required by the National Institutes of Health to include women until 1993, the lack of research in women’s health is perhaps no surprise. But why does this disparity still exist more than 15 years later? Funding, fear, and lack of fellowships may be the answer.
The overall complexity of women’s health and bodies has prevented more researchers from pursuing studies in those realms. Traditionally, this was justified by the idea that women’s bodies were seen to be too complex due to fluctuating hormones, so clinical trials often excluded them.
Fear of embarrassment when talking about their menstrual cycle or menopause prevents many women from discussing them with their doctors, so why should doctors and researchers look into what’s not being talked about? Without specific demands for such research, the funding is notably lacking.
But, Lucilla Poston, head of the department of women and children’s health at Kings College, London says, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and other bodies would argue that it is competitive funding anybody can apply for.
“Cancer, genetics and cardiovascular have got much bigger populations of researchers working in the field. The fact that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to them is probably largely due to the number of researchers they have who are applying for grants,” she says.
Poston says the solution is to have more competitive fellowships. “There are very few focused on women’s health. We could do with more to increase the actual critical mass of researchers in the field,” she says. “If you have good, high-quality scientists, they will be as competitive as everybody else when it comes to applying for grants.”
Until more research is done into women’s health, women will continue to be ignored when they speak to medical professionals about their symptoms, Enright argues. This needs to be addressed urgently, especially given that the gender gap can be compounded by worrying racial disparities: black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and birth in the UK.
With the advent of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, focusing on workplace equity and creating equal economic opportunities for women and people of color—as well as combating sexual harassment and assault—the excuses of fear, funding, and fellowship disparity will hopefully be recognized and dispensed within a new age of gender equity focus.