How Neglect Of Women’s Health Impacts Society

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Equitable healthcare access and treatment can be crucial for overall societal well-being. However, aspects of women’s health have been neglected by the medical establishment, both historically and in more contemporary times. Neglect of women’s health can have significant negative impacts, including missed diagnoses, inappropriate treatment plans, increased medical costs, lost productivity, and distrust of the healthcare system as a whole. 

Understanding how disregard for women’s health concerns can show up in modern society can help women and people of all genders navigate a healthcare system that is not always inclusive of their needs. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Have you experienced gender bias in healthcare?

History of neglecting women’s health

Below are some historical ways women’s health has been neglected and may still be neglected in some parts of the world. 


“Hysteria” is a health diagnosis that has existed since ancient Greek and Egyptian medical care practices and has been historically applied almost exclusively to women. Hysteria was widely used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as a diagnosis for so-called “female ailments” that the healthcare establishment did not sufficiently research and understand. A hysteria diagnosis was frequently applied when women pushed back against expected societal norms for “proper female behavior.” The following circumstances were commonly interpreted as signs of hysteria:

  • A woman demonstrating “excessive emotion”
  • A woman experiencing increases or decreases in her sex drive
  • A woman gaining weight
  • A woman not wanting to marry the specific partner their family selected for them or not wanting to get married at all
  • A woman seeking a divorce
  • A woman being attracted to a person of a different race
  • A woman being attracted to other women

Hysteria was often used as an excuse for institutionalizing women. In some cases, hysteria was thought to be caused by a lack of orgasms, so sex with a man (in some cases, assault) was prescribed as a “treatment option.”

Hysteria remained a legitimate mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1980, demonstrating that stereotypes about what was considered “normal feminine behavior” persisted in medical research and public health policy until recently.  

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A lack of focus on childbirth

Historically, pregnancy and childbirth—health issues that exclusively impact women and people with uteruses—have not been prioritized by doctors and researchers. In the past, doctors did not view pregnancy and childbirth as situations requiring medical expertise at all and refused to provide their services to expectant mothers. Instead, women were encouraged to seek the advice and guidance of a midwife. When doctors did provide care to pregnant patients, it was often a different standard of care than other forms of medicine supplied to male counterparts, with sometimes devastating effects. 

Midway through the 19th century, anesthesia was better understood, less expensive to access, and more widely used for various medical procedures, including surgeries. However, most doctors continued to refuse to provide any form of anesthesia or pain medication to people who were giving birth. This refusal was based on a prevailing Christian belief that women needed to suffer while in labor and delivery. 

According to Christian lore, the first woman, Eve, succumbed to temptation by accepting an apple offered by a snake, and as a result, she and her husband, Adam, were forced to leave the Garden of Eden paradise. Because of Eve’s sin, women were condemned to experience excruciating pain as part of childbirth, and doctors believed that prescribing medicine to lessen the pain would be counteracting God’s will. 

As an extension of the above belief, some doctors believed that maternal death during childbirth was a natural part of the process that could not be prevented in any way. This belief meant that medical researchers did not examine ways to improve childbirth procedures, and many doctors did not implement strategies that could have made childbirth safer. However, many of these techniques were as simple as washing their hands between births and wearing sterile gloves during delivery. These interventions could have prevented scores of maternal deaths and sick children who had been exposed to pathogens during the childbirth process. 

Exclusion of women from medical research and the medical profession

Women were not admitted to medical schools or allowed to practice medicine legally until the late 19th century. The exceptions to this rule were nurses aiding doctors or midwives facilitating childbirth (due to the persistent belief that childbirth did not require medical expertise). 

After women were allowed into the medical field, they continued to face barriers because of their gender. Harvard Medical School did not admit women until 1945, despite women continually requesting admission since 1847. Women were more likely to encounter sexual or gender-based harassment in their jobs as doctors or to be negatively assessed on a healthcare management evaluation as compared to men, both problems that persist to this day. 

Women have been chronically left out of medical research. There are fewer female medical researchers because of many of the same barriers to women’s education that aspiring female medical students face. However, women have also historically been missing from the medical field as research subjects, as Women’s College Hospital reports. 

The National Institutes of Health, the largest healthcare research organization in the United States, did not require researchers to include women in clinical trials until 1990. White cisgender men were considered the “standard,” and findings from trials exclusively evaluating this group were applied to the general population. The exclusion of women from research trials has led to several adverse outcomes, including a higher probability of female patients experiencing unpleasant side effects from drugs on the market today that were not adequately tested on female patients before being approved.


How is women’s health neglected today?

Below are some modern ways women’s health is neglected in healthcare. 

Skepticism and dismissiveness

Sexist attitudes that lead to women being taken less seriously than men in many aspects of societal functioning can also negatively impact the healthcare system. Doctors may consciously or subconsciously assume that women are exaggerating their symptoms or that their symptoms are not as serious because women are considered “weaker or more sensitive” than men. These attitudes can lead to situations where women must experience symptoms for a much more extended period than men to receive a diagnosis. Delayed diagnoses can have severe impacts when they occur in diseases like cancer.

Doctors are also more likely to dismiss women when they report levels of pain. When men communicate to medical professionals that they are in pain, they are commonly prescribed pain medication. In contrast, women who report pain to their doctor are more likely to be prescribed therapy.

Lack of understanding

Because of the lack of medical research conducted directly on female subjects, current medical understanding of the ways certain conditions can impact women is incomplete. Doctors who have not been trained to understand the differences between men’s and women’s symptoms may be less likely to recognize medical conditions in women. 

Heart attacks can present differently in women than they do in men, for example, but most doctors are trained to recognize male heart attack symptoms, the most common of which are chest tightness and pain. Women, however, may not experience any discomfort during a heart attack and may instead demonstrate symptoms like nausea, fatigue, and excessive sweating. 

Sexism in mental health diagnosis and treatment

Old beliefs can die hard, especially in a profession as ancient as the medical field. Although hysteria is no longer an official diagnosis, women with mental health concerns may still be treated differently. 

Women are more likely to receive a mental health diagnosis than men, particularly when it comes to conditions like depression or anxiety (which also has negative implications for men, as these conditions may be underdiagnosed in that population, meaning they could be missing out on mental health support). Some medical conditions may cause symptoms like those caused by mental health conditions, and when doctors default to assuming a mental health disorder is the root, other diagnoses and treatments may fall by the wayside. 

Have you experienced gender bias in healthcare?

Support options 

If you are experiencing difficulties navigating a sexist and biased medical care system, it could be helpful to speak to a therapist, even if you are not living with a mental illness. However, if unhelpful interactions with medical providers make you nervous about developing a relationship with a counselor, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be more accessible.

You can get matched with a therapist that meets your preferences through an online therapy platform. When you sign up, you can indicate if you’d like to speak to a woman therapist or a therapist with a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ identity. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, giving you control over how you receive support. 

Current research indicates that online therapy outcomes are comparable to traditional in-person therapy when providing emotional support and mental health treatment. One study found that people who completed a course of online therapy reported higher levels of self-esteem and self-empowerment afterward, which could help you advocate for yourself when experiencing gender bias in healthcare. 


Historical and current neglect of women’s health can lead to negative experiences for women in a healthcare setting, including delayed and missed diagnoses. If you have faced discrimination or dismissiveness from your doctor because of systemic healthcare-related sexism, therapy could help you process your feelings and learn to push back against ingrained biases.
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