As we recognize Women’s History Month, we celebrate the changes made to ensure that the health of women is now a focus for so many of us. Helping to reverse the history of largely excluding women from clinical studies designed to understand and improve health, Women’s Health Research at Yale is committed to research that allows everyone a better opportunity for health and well-being now and in the future.
This involves studying diseases and conditions that affect women disproportionately than men, filling large gaps in data that have grown over time. It means studying sex-and-gender differences so that we can better target prevention and treatment strategies for each individual’s needs. It means preparing medical providers and researchers with the latest knowledge and techniques so that science reorients toward these historically overlooked concerns.
We must also learn how to talk openly and honestly about such issues in an atmosphere that can too often become distorted through misinformation and misunderstanding.
For example, it may be hard for some to comprehend what’s behind recent calls for medical research to favor explorations of gender differences over sex. (Gender differences derive from social, cultural, and personal experiences that shape an individual’s self-representation along a continuum. Sex is the classification of living things, generally as male or female, based on biology, genetics, or physical characteristics.)
Why stress the importance of one over the other? Why not study both? And how biology and the social environment can interact?
Research has established many significant findings based on sex as a biological variable, such as how women are more likely to experience different types of a heart attack with different symptoms. In addition, reasons for the greater risk for women’s worse outcomes following a heart attack likely include environmental and social factors at the intersection of sex and gender involving individual patients and how institutions address or fail to address these differences adequately.
We also have learned that men have higher rates of severe COVID-19 and death from the disease than women. Yet, long COVID symptoms appear to affect women more than men. And we can see the impact of historical and persisting gender inequities in the indirect effects of the pandemic. A new study in the Lancet of 193 countries has shown that in the first six months of the pandemic, women were more likely than men to lose their jobs, care for others without pay, drop out of school, and report gender-based violence.
People, particularly women, belonging to marginalized groups have been even more affected negatively by the pandemic. The impacts on health and well-being of this extended global disruption will likely reverberate for many years.
This is why Women’s Health Research at Yale is working now toward changing science to include everyone. As the center prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, we know that we must learn from history so that we better understand ourselves and ensure better health outcomes for all.