The UK's Gender Pain Gap Is Real – & These Women Have Felt Its Consequences

Three women on how attitudes to gynaecological symptoms and growing waiting lists have left them in agony.

by Annabel Preston
The UK's Gender Pain Gap Is Real –  & These Women Have Felt Its Consequences

You don’t have to look far to find a harrowing story experienced by a woman seeking healthcare. For years, I have listened to tale upon tale from friends who have felt dismissed and ignored after an ordinary trip to the doctors. And, to add insult to injury, the waiting list for NHS gynaecology appointments has increased by 100% since the beginning of lockdown.

No one is arguing that healthcare for women should take priority over that of men. And yet, it is frequently reported that studies centred on men vastly outnumber those that focus on female healthcare. We now know the conditions that women are specifically susceptible to can be torturous. Indeed, with this month being named as Endometriosis Awareness Month, we are all compelled to acknowledge its painful existence. So, we can no longer feign ignorance. The pain gap between men and women is all about prejudice.

This experience is even more challenging for Black women. In 2022, a study showed that 75% of Black people aged 18-34 had experienced prejudice from doctors. So, for Black women, the healthcare barriers are twofold – and the pain gap even more significant.

In my journey to learn more about this issue, the first place I turned to was Twitter. My urge must have been more cosmic than logical as, I am ashamed to say, Twitter is about as familiar to me as Mars. Straddling Gen Z and millennial (or Zillenial), I have never really known where I stand when it comes to this explosive platform. Overwhelmed at best, horrified at worst, all I had to do was search the term “gynae” to encounter a barrage of stories concerning three-year waiting stints and pain trivialisation.

Right there, at the top of my search, was one woman’s experience that encapsulated the phenomenon. “I have horrendous period pain sometimes with vomiting and black-outs”, she wrote, “My GP told me there is no point referring me to gynaecology because the waiting list is currently over two years and I should try and manage it myself.”

The pain gap between men and women is all about prejudice

This type of dismissal is not uncommon. In her late teens, Marie* made a trip to her local GP. Having experienced her symptoms for some time, she suspected she was living with anaemia (a condition which endometriosis is commonly mistaken for). “The way the doctor treated me … it was so dismissive. It almost scared me to go back, she made me feel like it was all in my head. It really put me off going to the doctor or ever admitting anything is wrong, for my faults.”

The flippant nature of her GP’s advice seems shocking, but Marie’s experience is all too common. In 2018, Barbara Streisand brought widespread recognition to the concept of “Yentl syndrome” in her call for gender equality in the medical world. Defined as a phenomenon “whereby women are misdiagnosed and poorly treated unless their symptoms or diseases conform to that of men,” it is something women across the UK, and indeed the world, consistently report. But why are women made to feel so invisible in healthcare?

In a survey conducted by Nurofen, it was found that 56% of the women they spoke to felt the pain they experienced was ignored or dismissed, with 50% of them feeling this way when seeking support from a GP. And the reason behind all of this? You guessed it. The patriarchy.

With generation after generation of women being stereotyped as emotional and weak, the lack of faith in their ability to communicate what they are feeling is entrenched in our society – and this doesn’t just apply to physical pain. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the infamous 2009 study which proved middle-aged women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness compared with men who had the same symptoms.

Marie never progressed with her healthcare concern. But, if she had, she may have found herself on the NHS gynaecology waiting list like Yasmin*. With a suspected case of endometriosis, her road to diagnosis has been long. “Every time I get my period I either pass out or throw up,” she said. “There came a point when I realised that this is just not normal, so I went to go to the doctors. I must’ve been about three times before they decided I didn’t just have ‘bad period pains.’ That was eight months ago. I’ve been waiting to see a gynaecologist since then.”

56% of the women surveyed said they felt the pain they experienced was ignored or dismissed

Yasmin tells me that she can see why medical professionals might find it hard to differentiate between exceptional and ordinary period pains, “but vomiting is just not normal.” The Guardian spoke to Faye Farthing, the head of communications and campaigns at Endometriosis UK. She shared that she often hears from women “suffering in debilitating pain” who are being “robbed of their careers, relationships, mental health, and more.”

The waiting list is undoubtedly a huge problem for women living in the UK, but the pain gap can also be found in the emergency sector. Emma* recently had an IUD (also known as the coil) fitted. Despite expecting pain, her symptoms went beyond what is described as “normal.” “It was between midnight and about 4 a.m. when it became totally, totally abnormal pain,” she said. “ I thought I was going to be sick, the pain was so bad, and nothing would make it better. And I was on as many painkillers as I could take.” As a lawyer within the medical sector, Emma knew the kind of attention this incident warranted. But, after a very thorough experience with 111, she told me her pain was swiftly undermined.

“When I got to the hospital, that's when it felt like they were less concerned. It felt more dismissive. I made it clear that I’d had a coil put in, and it should be obvious to them that it can perforate your uterus and the coil can become displaced. But it slightly felt like straightaway, they were just thinking, ‘oh, she's just in a bit of pain because she's had the coil put in.’ Yeah, I did feel dismissed.”

With the announcement of a new, £25 million healthcare hub for women, hope does seem to be on the horizon. However, for women like Marie, Yasmin, and Emma, it’s difficult not to think that the government’s attempt to rectify the issue is too little, too late. Hopefully this signals a shift in attitudes and a better future for female healthcare, but how many women have had to suffer due to the years of inertia? I dread to think.

*Marie, Yasmin and Emma’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.