Advancing Women’s Health Through Education and Representation

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Data Society
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May 2024
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Each May, the US celebration of Mother’s Day marks the beginning of National Women’s Health Week. Led by the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office on Women’s Health, this annual campaign calls attention to women’s health issues and offers information and resources to promote mental, physical, and emotional wellness among women. This week came out of the existing health gender gap, a gap that could be narrowed in part by promoting education among girls and women and addressing the AI gender gap.

Please note: For the purpose of this blog, “gender” refers to an individual’s self-identification and experience in a social and cultural context.

Measuring Gender Disparities in Health Outcomes

While women’s life expectancies are longer than their male counterparts’, research indicates that they spend 25% more of their lives in poor health. According to a recently published study, women bear more disease burden than men for conditions such as lower back pain, depression, and headache disorders. Additional findings indicate that women experience more adverse events from medications as compared to men and suffer worse outcomes from some conditions that men and women share, such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. These disparities may be due in part to misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis, which, evidence suggests, women experience at a higher rate than men.

How Education Can Improve Women’s Health

Education universally supports better health outcomes. The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks education among the social determinants of health (SDH) and notes that, according to some studies, 30-55% of health outcomes are attributable to SDHs. 

These benefits can be especially impactful for women. Education strengthens life competencies that lead to resilience in the face of life’s challenges and control over environmental factors and other conditions that impact health. Because women are relatively disadvantaged according to other social attributes that drive health, these tools are more powerful differentiators in the lives of women, and one study found that education has a greater impact on women’s self-rated health than on men’s self-rated health. 

When mothers in particular are educated, the benefits extend throughout families and communities. A UN report states that, with each additional year of a mother’s education, the probability of infant mortality is reduced by 5-10%. In addition, studies show that the education of mothers has a significant impact on intergenerational mobility.

Boosting Workforce Representation to Bridge the Health Gap

Education can also play a role in boosting women’s workforce participation, a driver of positive SDHs such as socioeconomic security and empowerment. A recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with the McKinsey Health Institute estimates that closing the gender health gap could add seven healthy years each year to the lives of 3.9 billion women and could potentially add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2040. 

While increasing women’s participation across all segments of the workforce promises to improve the lives of women, families, and communities, greater representation of women in certain fields can directly address the gender divide in healthcare. Many of the conditions that widen the gender health gap underscore historical biases that have been enshrined in such manifestations as data gaps and a legacy of treatment approaches that fail to account for health differences across the gender spectrum. For example, women weren’t included in clinical studies until the late 1980s, and their inclusion wasn’t mandated in the US until 1993. Worldwide, only 1% of healthcare research and development is invested in women’s health, and one study found that only one quarter of clinical trials in the US had sex-disaggregated data. 

Empowering women to tackle the barriers that stand between them and better health can make a significant difference in all of these areas. From clinical trial design to healthcare leadership, roles in which women are underrepresented are instrumental in bridging the gender gap in health. And AI is rapidly emerging among the fields that can have a positive impact, negatively or positively, on women’s health.

AI and the Gender Health Gap

AI has potential to help correct the gender imbalance in healthcare. It can provide powerful solutions for bias testing and developing personalized care. It’s also possible that AI can augment the insufficient supply of research data collected from and about women by generating synthetic data. AI innovations that support women’s health include an algorithm that reads mammograms with a high rate of accuracy and solutions that detect postpartum hypertension and diabetes.  

But as the role of AI applications in health continues to grow, the enduring biases reflected in data—or absence of data—can become amplified. Examples of AI models that have exacerbated the health gap include a diagnostic tool that proved 50% more likely to misdiagnose women than men and a model developed to predict liver disease that missed 44% of cases in women, compared to only 23% in men. Therefore, it is critical to build equity and inclusion into AI models used in healthcare. 

Increasing representation of women in AI is a key to achieving this goal. Yet, according to a 2020 WEF report, women account for only 26% of AI and data professionals.

Empowering Women to Promote Women’s Health

A history of circumstances has proven less than favorable to women’s health. But with each step toward greater awareness of these issues, we gain insights into how we can change these circumstances. Empowering women to shape research, care, and technology will help us turn these insights into solutions. We hope that every National Women’s Health Week in years to come will be a celebration of progress in women’s health.

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