Gender and Health: How Do They Affect Each Other?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Invisible Women" by Caroline Criado Perez. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is gender important to consider when thinking about health? How does gender affect health?

According to Caroline Criado Perez in Invisible Women, our male-as-default mindset results in a gender data gap that harms women’s health. She discusses how this manifests in everyday products and in our healthcare system.

Read below to learn how gender and health are interconnected through car crash tests and medicine.

How the Gender Data Gap Affects Everyday Products

Perez contends that we can see how our male-as-default mindset results in a gender data gap by looking at how everyday products—specifically cars—are created. Perez explains that our male-as-default mindset makes us believe that products that work for men must work for everybody. This leads us to not collect data on women and thus create products that harm women’s health. Notably, car manufacturers don’t think about how gender and health are connected. This is because our cars don’t properly protect women. After all, we don’t test car safety using female crash-test dummies.

To illustrate, Perez points to how the European Union determines whether a car is safe. In the EU, a car must undergo five regulatory crash tests. These tests determine whether the car is safe for all people, but they require the usage of a crash-test dummy based on the “fiftieth percentile male,” which demonstrates a male-as-default mindset. Since these tests don’t use female crash-test dummies, they ensure that the EU lacks information on whether these cars are safe for women.

Moreover, although the EU has a separate regulatory test that requires the use of a crash-test dummy based on the “fifth-percentile female,” Perez argues that this test still doesn’t provide enough information on whether a car sufficiently protects women. This is because there are practically no anatomically correct female crash-test dummies that account for all the biological differences between the sexes that might be relevant in a car crash—like the fact that each sex’s muscle mass is distributed differently.

Therefore, Perez argues, cars are created to work for the average male—not the average female—and thus do not sufficiently protect women’s bodies. As evidence, Perez points to the fact that, even though a woman is less likely to be in a car crash than a man, she is far more likely to be seriously injured or die from one. 

In this way, Perez contends, our male-as-default mindset leads to a lack of data regarding whether a car is safe for women. This, in turn, leads to unsafe cars on the road—and ultimately harms women’s health.

How the Gender Data Gap Affects Medicine

Our assumption that products that work for men must work for everybody doesn’t just harm women in automobiles. Perez argues that our male-as-default mindset also creates a harmful gender data gap in the drug creation process: Specifically, we don’t know how medicines affect women because we don’t test them on women. Perez explains that many pharmaceutical companies operate on a male-as-default mindset: They test their drugs exclusively on men and assume they’ll also work on women. Why not include women? Women’s hormones fluctuate throughout their menstrual cycle—and these companies worry that introducing this additional variable would make their test results less clear.

However, Perez argues, that this decision to not test drugs on women ultimately harms women’s health. Men and women are biologically different, so these drugs affect them differently: For example, women tend to metabolize drugs faster than men. So by giving women drugs that haven’t been tested on women, these companies are not supporting women’s health at best and actively harming it at worst. As evidence, Perez points to the fact that women are far more likely to experience an adverse drug reaction than men are. One of the most common is that the drug fails to treat the condition it’s supposed to. 

(Shortform note: A year after Invisible Women was published, a study more specifically revealed the risks of not testing drugs on women. It examined 86 medications and found that when men and women took the same dosage of a particular medicine, women systematically experienced a higher number and greater frequency of adverse drug reactions and retained more of the drug in their bodies for a longer period than men did.)

Perez writes that in this way, our lack of data on how these drugs affect women leads to women taking drugs that don’t work for them and thus harm their health.  

Gender and Health: How Do They Affect Each Other?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Caroline Criado Perez's "Invisible Women" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Invisible Women summary :

  • How society's male-as-default mindset leads to a gender data gap
  • Why cars don't properly protect women during accidents
  • Why we don’t know how most medicines affect women

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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