Women talk to each other in a focus group

Research project hears from women in Scotland on the effects of discrimination on health

A new research project has looked to build an understanding of the effects of discrimination on women’s health, highlighting four overarching themes around how parts of women’s identities can be used as an excuse by health professionals for not investigating; perceptions of women’s health not being understood; perceptions of unequal access to resources due to racism and discrimination; and self-advocacy for women in seeking treatment and support.

The report included an evidence review of scientific databases, government reports and grey literature; as well as a range of focus groups and interviews with women from a range of different populations across Scotland.

Findings from the focus groups showed that women “gave many examples of not being listened to, being dismissed and ignored”. They provided examples of when aspects of their identity, such as their age, gender identity or relationship status, were “used by health professionals as reasons for symptoms they were reporting”, forming an “excuse for not investigating”. In particular, “Puberty, pregnancy and menopause were highlighted by women of all ages as reasons medical professionals gave for their experiences of physical or mental health symptoms.”

The focus groups also highlighted the barriers that women from ethnic minority backgrounds can experience when accessing healthcare, with examples of women trying to hide their racial or ethnic identity in order to avoid discrimination, assumptions that they do not speak English, and additional ID checks around whether the woman was eligible for a test. Lack of clinician knowledge about how health conditions present in ethnic minorities was also noted by the groups.

Findings from 28 interviews with young women aged 16-25 demonstrated similar themes, including “ageist sexism” or assumptions about them being fit and well, with participants describing times where they were made to feel “naïve” “overdramatic”, or “hormonal”, and discouraged them from seeking health and care. Women reported feeling “dismissed” when enquiring about changing contraception or reporting symptoms relating to current methods of contraception.

In addition, “many participants spoke of having to constantly ‘fight’ for the opportunity to be healthy”, with methods of self-advocacy developed over time through necessity. These include extensively researching symptoms and conditions, being vocal and assertive with medical professionals, seeking private avenues and learning how to complete forms “in a way that would mean getting seen by the right person within good time”.

On the theme of women’s health, last year we reported on how the DHSC’s vision for women’s health in England was informed by a call for evidence that saw more than 100,000 responses. The vision focuses on topics such as women’s voices, policies, education and evidence, with dedicated sections on topics such as menstrual health and gynaecological conditions, mental health and the health impacts of violence against women and girls.

We also covered news from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust on the topic of their new health research centre designed to advance treatments for women’s cancers, understand the health implications of pre-term birth, and explore the impact of gender on career progression for female academics in science and healthcare.

To learn more about the Scottish government’s research project, please click here.