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How Assessing Sex-and-Gender Differences Can Help Achieve True Equality

March 17, 2020

In January, the Virginia legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, theoretically reaching the necessary threshold to make this long-sought objective of women’s rights campaigners a part of the U.S. Constitution.

In essence, the amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Several legal hurdles remain in place, including a long-expired deadline on ratification of the amendment, first passed by Congress in 1972, and the decision of five states to subsequently rescind their ratifications, thus potentially leaving the amendment short of the 38 states required to approve it.

I find it easy to support the idea that people of different sexes and genders deserve equal treatment under the law and equal opportunities to succeed in life. But that doesn’t mean everyone is the same. Achieving true equality demands that we think differently about what makes us different.

The more we learn about health and disease, the more we understand how males and females differ. Even small sex-and-gender differences in biology and behavior can have big impacts.

For example, women can experience different symptoms of a heart attack, including chest pain common to both women and men, but also shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, jaw pain, or nausea. Recognizing these symptoms and receiving treatment early enough can save a life. And yet women remain underrepresented in studies exploring important aspects of cardiovascular disease.

Women are also more likely to have acute and chronic pain and develop depression, anxiety, autoimmune disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Women are more likely to suffer from migraine headaches, develop osteoporosis, and rapidly escalate from drug use to addiction. We must study women and the sex-and-gender differences to help the millions of women suffering from these diseases and conditions.

Of course, men also experience heightened health risks, including shorter average life spans and increased incidences of gout, kidney stones, suicide, and alcoholism. But this isn’t a contest. We aren’t keeping score or assigning a winner. The point is that people are different, and we must explore those differences to better understand how to prevent and treat disease.

That is why Women’s Health Research at Yale exists. It is why we continue to launch new research into the health of women and sex-and-gender differences. It is why we build and strengthen collaborations across disciplines to take on complicated problems in light of these differences. It is why we speak out across the country to improve public policy. It is why we train new researchers and medical practitioners so they expand and extend this vital work.

When it comes to living a long and healthy life, equality of opportunity is coming. And WHRY is making the right kind of difference.

Submitted by Rick Harrison on March 12, 2020