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11 February 2023, marks the 8th annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Here NIHR Doctoral Research Fellow, Tori Ford, explores what this day means for achieving gender health equity from both a researcher and patient perspective.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognises the trails blazed and bridges built towards gender equity while also acknowledging the gaps left to close.  

Today is an opportunity to advocate for women's full and equal inclusion to conduct and participate in scientific research. 

Despite popular beliefs, science and medicine are not domains untouched by larger social structures of sexism, racism, and ableism. Instead, these structures can be magnified onto individuals within clinical settings. Currently, and historically, women are more likely to be dismissed as overly emotional or untrustworthy in healthcare. A recent rise of investigations concerning gender bias in medicine, including the Cumberlege review “First Do No Harm” (2020) reveal how women’s medical experiences and concerns are often “dismissed, overlooked and ignored”. 

Women have been excluded from research as both scientists and subjects. Today, conditions that disproportionately, or differently, affect people assigned female at birth are too often overlooked as research priorities. The first-ever Women’s Health Strategy for England (2022) highlights the need for targeted attention, research, and action on the health and well-being of women. The new strategy prioritises centring women’s voices in evidence-based solutions. However, much work remains to ensure that research priorities recognise intersectional oppression for those who are racialised, impoverished, disabled, trans, and otherwise vulnerable.  

Purple and blue background. Image of a woman staring at the viewer with all sorts of medical words whirling around her head. Text reads: Medical Herstory.

Further, the resources to achieve gender health equity remain limited. The Wellbeing of Women reports that, in 2020, only 2% of public funding was invested in female reproductive health research. These structural barriers cause harm from lost opportunities to lost lives.  

As a feminist health researcher, I am working to tackle the complex challenge of gender health inequity. I am completing my DPhil in Primary Care with the Medical Sociology & Health Experiences research group. Before this, I completed an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies at McGill University, and an MPhil in Health, Medicine, and Society at the University of Cambridge. My DPhil project aims to capture patient experiences, improve health services, and dismantle social stigma around vulvovaginal health. My work in the Medical Sciences Department differs from what I grew up thinking was possible. Too often, STEM and the social sciences are positioned as opposites. In reality, the two are intertwined. Medical research is equally needed to develop new treatment options, and to uncover what priorities, barriers, and facilitators patients consider when making treatment decisions. Storytelling is at the heart of all health experiences, and my work uses narratives to improve patient outcomes, identify clinical support needs, and strengthen patient-provider relationships.  

My experiences as both a researcher and patient advocate led me to found Medical Herstory, an award-winning international non-profit on a mission to eliminate sexism, shame, and stigma from health experiences. We advance gender health equity through medical education, patient advocacy, and undoing social stigma. Through storytelling, we transform damaging gender norms that propel shame, empower patients to self-advocate, and equip student doctors with tools to combat gender bias.   

Some of the feminist health initiatives that we offer for researchers, healthcare providers, and patients are listed below.  

  • Support research projects by providing patient representatives, recruiting participants, and partnering on grant applications  

  • Disseminate research findings and health literacy campaigns on social media (@medicalherstory)  

  • Create resources and infographics for reflection and education  

  • Publish patient narratives, blogs, and interviews  

  • Present skills-based workshops for student doctors, patients, and researchers  

  • Host monthly storytelling events and an annual Feminist Health Research Conference  

  • Supervise student research placements for those interested in gender health equity  

  • Partner with medical schools and charities to compound efforts   

  • Consult for organisations about gender inclusive language and EDI issues  

  • Organise the Gender Health Equity Collective at the University of Oxford to connect researchers  

Through this work, we equip patients, healthcare professionals, and researchers with the tools needed to be informed by and attuned to gender health disparities. If you would like to learn more about advocating for and investing in feminist health research, or how Medical Herstory can help make your work more gender inclusive, please get in touch!  

Opinions expressed are those of the author/s and not of the University of Oxford. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.


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