Imagine a society where the National Institute for Health devotes approximately 12.6 percent of its budget to study women’s health. Or, where the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations does not address the question of sex in clinical trials; there is no formal requirement that women make up a significant portion of a trial’s patient population or even participate at all. Imagine the audacity of a society discounting the importance of more than half its population’s health and wellbeing. I guess it’s not that hard to imagine... since it is just women.
Being a woman means being defined in a social construct as less than a man. We are valued less. We have fewer opportunities. We are expected to work harder to prove ourselves yet get paid less. We are sexualized and objectified as well as violated and assaulted with impunity. Systemically, we are raised to be deferential, desirable, and dependent while being expected to be the caretakers of familial systems. We are acculturated into a structure of dominance and suppression without knowing any differently, so we accept it, normalize it, and internalize it. Half of the human population is welcomed into the world suppressed and disempowered. In addition, the health care practices females receive have been predominantly shaped by the medical research based on men. Somehow, we have had the resiliency to survive.
As a social scientist, I have spent the past 30 years working with individuals, couples, families, and various corporations and organizations to facilitate paradigm shifts in consciousness and behavior. My intention is to support human flourishing with a multidimensional, whole systems approach. Consistently, I have witnessed that the major obstacle to embracing and integrating systemic change is the attachment to our conditioned gender norms and stereotypes. Bell Hooks, American author, feminist, and social activist, shares her experience,
“Individual heterosexual women came to the movement from relationships where men were cruel, unkind, violent, unfaithful. Many of these men were radical thinkers who participated in movements for social justice, speaking out on behalf of the workers, the poor, speaking out on behalf of racial justice. However when it came to the issue of gender they were as sexist as their conservative cohorts.”
This sexism, which has been disempowering women from birth, has been so tightly woven into to the fabric of society that fear and panic ensue at the mention of empowering women.
By definition, to empower is to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights. Empowering women means shifting to an equality paradigm where women have the power and authority to make decisions of their own for their benefit as well as for society. We know that when a person has choice they can feel empowered. We also know that when a person has the right to live a life with a sense of self-worth, respect, and dignity as well as have complete control of their life, both within and outside of their home and workplace, they have the potential to flourish. We know this because men have had this opportunity for centuries and its been researched and documented.
As health and wellbeing continue to be discussed in science, education, politics, and business, we must include the negative impact of sexism on a woman’s capacity to be healthy. Could we consider that women have different health issues, which need to be researched as vigorously as erectile dysfunction? Could we explore how empowering women transforms their health and wellbeing? Could we research how personal sovereignty, as a woman’s right, may not only improve women’s health but also the health of communities? What would science discover if it considered the inherent injustices in our social construct of gender and included it in medical research? Perhaps, we would discover that valuing women and their health benefits everyone and sustains humanity.