The gender health gap: It’s more than a women’s issue. Here’s why




The gender health gap affects everyone: our families, communities, workplaces, societies. Yet around the world, millions of women at all stages of life are unable to access the healthcare, treatment and support they need.

Resolving this issue was the focus of our discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where we joined a session called Closing the Gender Health Gap.

Davos AM24 session 'Closing the Gender Gap in Health'.How to achieve gender health parity … the panel at Davos 2024.
Image: World Economic Forum

Davos saw the launch of a new report from the Forum and the McKinsey Health Institute, called Closing the Women’s Health Gap: A $1 Trillion Opportunity to Improve Lives and Economies.

With just 1% of global healthcare research and development dedicated to female-specific conditions, this research highlights the vital need for action to close the gender health gap and strive for gender health parity.

Diagnosing the gender health gap

Despite living longer than men on average, women spend 25% more of their lives in poor health, according to the report.

Healthcare research and innovation in female-specific conditionsHow much funding goes into researching women’s health?
Image: McKinsey & Company

Poor sanitation takes 1.4 million lives annually, with women and girls bearing a disproportionate burden, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, conditions such as premenstrual syndrome, depression and gynaecological diseases are among the leading conditions that restrict female contributions to GDP growth.

In India, lack of access to water and sanitation has been a threat to women and girls, in terms of their health and their physical security. In response, the Indian government has built 110 million toilets and provided 130 million potable water connections to address the problem.

In addition, wellness centres and health insurance schemes offer support to almost 146 million women in the country. The focus on preventative care has resulted in 168 million breast screenings and 113 million cervical-cancer screenings. Such measures also encourage women to become part of a healthy workforce, which empowers them economically.

Moreover, the Indian national nutrition mission, Poshan Abhiyaan, has provided support to more than 25 million pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Programmes like these help to break down some of the societal stigmas surrounding women’s healthcare and encourage women to seek medical treatment and other social services.

The global health burden is not only carried by the women it impacts, but is also felt throughout broader society. As the Closing the Women’s Health Gap report outlines: “The disparities in women’s health affect not only women’s quality of life but also their economic participation and ability to earn a living for themselves and their families. Health is intricately linked to economic productivity, prospects for prosperity and contribution to economic output.”

Closing the gender health gap could not only avoid many years of life lost every year due to poor health or early death, but it would also enable women to participate more actively in the workforce and contribute to growth.

We need to stop looking at this challenge as solving an issue for women. We are solving this issue for the whole population.

Treating the symptoms

The challenge to improve female healthcare is not restricted to doing more research or providing more treatments, drugs or infrastructure, it’s also about policy and perception. We need to change public perception of society and, in turn, policy and decision-making about female-specific healthcare.

Initiatives like the World Economic Forum’s Global Alliance for Women’s Health, which was launched at Davos in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners, encourage stakeholders from across the medical world to join forces, build trust and encourage investment in women’s health.

The Alliance aims to provide impetus to public-private partnerships that are essential to unlocking the finance and innovation needed to transform healthcare systems and make them more responsive to women’s health needs.

This can help health officials promote more strategic approaches to preventive healthcare for women in many ways, including raising global awareness of female-specific healthcare issues in different geographies and identifying common red flags.

Collaboration can also bring together rich sources of data from the global health system that may not otherwise be available, which can then inform future plans and procedures.

And, most importantly, it combines areas of expertise needed to address specific medical challenges from a gender perspective, with a focus on how they can be delivered.

Written by

Smriti Zubin Irani, Minister of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Women and Child Development of India

Shyam Bishen, Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum


This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum on 21 February 2024.


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