Health and Healthcare

Health equity for women and girls: Here's how to get there

Women's health is still underserved by the research community.

Women's health is still underserved by the research community. Image: Unsplash/Gemma Chua-Tran

Amira Ghouaibi
Head, Global Alliance for Women's Health, World Economic Forum
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  • Health inequity is still prevalent worldwide, negatively impacting socio-economic opportunities for women and the economy.
  • Women’s health concerns are still underserved by the research community and workplaces.
  • Positive signs of progress exist, including through social movements and FemTech.

In an ideal world, women and girls would live in a healthy, safe and equitable environment where they can thrive, free from discrimination and injustice.

Unfortunately, trends and data show that such a world is far from reality. Women’s health is still deprioritized, underfunded and under-researched, leading to significant challenges while widening gender gaps and social and economic disparities.

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Failing women’s health

Women generally live longer than men but spend more of their life in poor health. Moreover, they are confronted with persistent barriers to accessing healthcare. And challenges such as gender discrimination, lack of education and domestic violence persist.

The current healthcare system is failing to address women’s health needs. A newly published report from UN agencies and the World Bank shows that globally, 800 maternal deaths occur every day – one every two minutes – due to child pregnancy and childbirth complications. Despite the progress and ambitions to end maternal deaths, the world will lose more than 1 million lives if we continue with this trend.

Where research and development (R&D) is concerned, up until 1993, the US Food & Drug Administration didn’t require that women be included in clinical trials. Today, only 4% of all biopharma R&D spending goes toward female-centric issues, leading to a lack of understanding of women’s health issues. A 2019 study revealed that 52% of women considered gender discrimination with a healthcare provider to be a serious issue and 25% said they did not take their pain seriously.

New narratives of progress

While we still have a long way to go, there are emerging trends and initiatives paving the path for a better future, yet more work is still needed.

Invest in health and the economy

The more we invest in women’s health, the more we contribute to the safety, health and well-being of the family, the community and the country. In addition, improved access to women’s health services can help achieve sustainable development goals and reduce hunger and poverty, promote healthy lives and well-being, ensure primary education and achieve gender equality, women empowerment and sustainable economic growth.

Women’s health is tied to the economic performance of a country. For example, improved family planning services in Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal could increase per capita income by 8–13%.

Raising women’s voices

The COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of the uneven burden women and girls carry. In a session at the 2023 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, addressing the economics of women’s health, Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), rightly mentioned that women, as half of the world’s population, are no longer taking the back seat and are not scared to express their needs.

Companies could take a more proactive and supportive role and normalize the conversation around women’s health in the workplace.

Amira Ghouaibi, Project Lead, Women's Health Initiative, World Economic Forum

The story of Inas, who bravely spoke up and left her abusive husband despite the cultural norms and threats, is a sure inspiration to all women, before she used UNFPA’s services to identify and resolve a grave cancer risk. The transformation in understanding women’s and girls’ human rights, self-worth and right to exist, lead and consume the right products is thus underway.

Innovation and tech for health

In just a few years, the FemTech industry has developed a range of healthcare solutions, improving maternal and menstrual health and other conditions affecting women disproportionately.

At the same time, there has been growing awareness and concerns regarding women’s health. Feminist movements, including debates around reproductive rights, #MeToo and the Women’s March, have placed a greater spotlight on gender-related issues.

These changes have created huge market opportunities, predicted to become a $50 billion industry by 2025. This boom has enabled the development of technological advancements that better understand and respond to women’s unmet health needs.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Promoting women’s health in the workplace

Women make up a significant proportion of the workforce and for working women in the 2020s, the pressure of balancing work and home is as intense as ever.

Facing particular health issues, however – whether physical, sexual or mental health related – the workplace can directly impact a woman’s wellness. For example, 1 in 7 women will get breast cancer in the UK. Of the women polled by the women’s health journal, 57% believe a gynae or hormonal health condition has negatively impacted their career.

Companies could take a more proactive and supportive role and normalize the conversation around women’s health in the workplace. Successful practices include a flexible work culture or tailor-made health insurance plans for women.

By centring women’s health, it is not only women and girls who benefit but society as a whole.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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