Speaking of Women's Rights: Searching for Answers -- and Equality

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Searching for Answers -- and Equality

It’s fun watching great athletes: Serena Williams smashing a serve on the tennis court; Lauren Jackson driving and scoring on the basketball court; Danielle Lawrie throwing killer pitches, then hitting a home run in the next half inning. And given how concerned we all should be (and increasingly are) about obesity, we ought to be doing everything we can to get more girls and women to emulate these three and so many other fabulous, magnificent athletes. If we could understand how they attain the levels of excellence they do, perhaps we could help more women and girls reach those heights.

So it was a disappointment, if not a surprise, to see an article today that not only noted the differences between how exercise affects men and women, but also how little research and knowledge there is about those differences.

The lack of surprise stems from studies and reports dating back more than ten years noting the paucity of number, type and longevity of scientific and medical studies of women, compared to men. That disparity continues, and not only hampers progress in promoting women’s health, but also can have an injurious effect on women’s health: for example, it took years (decades, really) before the medical establishment fully understood that women experience heart attacks and heart pain differently from men. In that interval, thousands of women were not treated properly, resulting in heart damage, death, decreased longevity, and lesser quality of life.

The justification for the disparity is . . . well, there isn’t one. While researchers in the past claimed ignorance of possible differences, it really has to do with the view that men are the ‘standard’, the model, and that women are just mini-men. Not true, in so many very obvious ways. But even if there is no justification, there are probably multiple explanations in addition to ingrained patriarchy and willful ignorance.

A recent review and summary by the American Association of University Women of eight gender equity in science studies suggests several of the reasons: the persistent stereotyping of women as less apt in science in math, the perception or reality of bias against women in those fields, the possible stigma of entering a ‘masculine’ profession.

In a semi-benign category is the theory that people often are moved to explore issues relevant to their own lives and experiences, and for most of the history of scientific research, the vast majority of researchers have been men. That’s still true to some degree, though it has improved. And it’s great to see groups dedicated to doing and advocating for research on women’s health. These improvements are nice, but not enough, and the progress is impeded, or perhaps even derailed in some circumstances, by that oldie-but-goodie, pay disparity.

They say money makes the world go ‘round. Maybe so, but it certainly establishes a nasty catch-22 when it comes to advancing women’s rights, women’s health and women’s economic equality: we need more women advocates and academics, but those striving for success still get stymied by opposition, bias, and the inability to prosper, so they can’t go forth and do research, make a difference, improve the lives and representation of women, and in turn foster more women leaders.