The Gender Pain Bias: Women, Your Pain Is Not ‘All In Your Head’

While we live in an era attempting to tackle serous inequalities faced by women, such as the gender pay gap, one very important problem is being overlooked: the gender pain gap.

Female pain is often conflated with emotional distress, and therefore discredited. The word hysteria originates from the Greek word for uterus. This demonstrates how mental suffering is often seen as a problem of the ‘inferior’ sex, which is how Aristotle defined women. A study by the University of Maryland, ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’, revealed that women are consistently prescribed sedatives for pain, while men are prescribed painkillers. This indicates that healthcare professionals view women’s pain as psychosomatic. Such an attitude echoes the outrageously misogynistic medical theory of Female Hysteria with which women were diagnosed until as recently as the 1950s. It was defined as a nervous condition, with symptoms similar to depression and anxiety, and was attributed to problems of the womb. Treatment was with massages performed by male physicians, or increased sex with a husband. Women’s suffering was reduced to a condition of their sex, that which could only be alleviated through the pleasure of a man.

This misconception that women are prone to hysterical exaggeration because of their “weaker” biology may explain why pain caused by gynaecological conditions is particularly overlooked. Both male and female GPs feed the incorrect belief that ‘period pain is normal’ to the majority of women. It is common, but it is not normal; 80% of women have pain-free periods. Women who are suffering are repeatedly turned away with ineffective pain relief and no understanding of whether their pain is a sign of an underlying condition.

For me it took ten years of unsuccessful trips to my GP, to A&E and surgery before I was diagnosed with endometriosis, and even then, the investigation was at my suggestion. For many sufferers, this is an all too familiar story. Last year, NICE revealed that the average wait time to diagnose the condition, which affects one in ten women of reproductive age, is seven and a half years.

Endometriosis is a gynaecological condition that causes inflammation, scarring and adhesions, usually resulting in severe pain and, if left untreated, infertility. A study by Birmingham City University found that two million women in the UK endure unsuccessful treatments and a diminished quality of life because of chronic underfunding in research and treatment; the condition has no known cause and no cure. Emma Cox, chief executive of the charity Endometriosis UK, states that the condition will go undetected by doctors until it affects a woman’s ability to conceive. “The attitude is that women are there to have babies,” she says.

This dismissal of women’s pain is not limited to gynaecological issues. In a 1996 study of 366 AIDS patients, women with the condition were found to be significantly less likely than men to receive adequate analgesic therapy. Another study from 1999 found that women with chest pain were less likely to be admitted to hospital than men. The theory behind this bias was attributed to “Yentl Syndrome”, which states that women are less likely than men to be treated as intensely and effectively in their first encounter with medical professionals, until they can “prove that they are as sick as male patients.” The gender bias runs so deep that the study by the University of Maryland found that the physical appearance of women – but not of men – affects doctors’ sympathy for their pain; the more attractive a woman is, the healthier she is assumed to be.

Knowing all this, it is clear that latent misogyny still infects healthcare institutions today. Women’s vocalisation of pain is classified as hysteria and exaggeration, to such an extent that harmful illnesses are left undetected. Women must be unwavering in their interactions with medical professionals and not accept pain as a condition of womanhood.


Eloise Barry

[Image: Huffington Post]