Like in many aspects of life, there remains an undercurrent of sex bias against women in healthcare. This bias, or gender gap, is resulting in substandard healthcare for women and girls in New Zealand.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day to celebrate the achievements of women. It’s an annual day in the calendar to remind us that there is still work to be done to create a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias. Whether it’s unconscious or deliberate, the presence of bias makes it difficult to create a level playing field in any arena. One of the mission’s for IWD is “to assist women to be in a position of power to make informed decisions about their health”.

Sex Bias in healthcare exists

Sex bias in healthcare exists – both historically and in the present day. Breaking the bias calls for accelerated adoption of FemTech. It calls for more action in women’s health. And for ongoing work to ensure women’s health is equally represented.

It seems obvious, but men and women are different. Yes, our reproductive organs are different, but it’s more than this. Our biological sex can make us more likely to suffer from certain diseases. To respond differently to drugs. And to cause different symptoms for the same diseases (i.e. heart attacks). Until recently, this wasn’t well known. Large male biases have existed across all phases of medical research. The consequence being that female biology is still not well understood.

This historical data gap is slowly narrowing but challenges remain. These are due to continuing inequities for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). As well as lack of representation in leadership roles and on company boards, and limited ability to attract investment in the FemTech space.  For example, in the US, only 2% of venture capital funding went to all-female founding teams in 2021, marking a 5-year low. In Aotearoa, many female entrepreneurs have experienced gender bias when raising capital. Reducing the gender gap across these areas requires a concerted effort from governments, education systems and industry. 

Growth in FemTech empowering women to take control of their health

Thankfully new technologies are enabling women to take control of their own health. FemTech (or female technology) is providing a wide range of female specific solutions. These include menstrual health, pelvic and reproductive health, menopause as well as gender specific conditions such as heart disease and osteoporosis.

Most FemTech products aim to solve specific issues throughout the life span. This leverages on the increased capability that many women now have to make their own decisions regarding their health and wellbeing. These innovations in tech are giving women the power to advocate for their own health. The FemTech industry is skyrocketing, with the market forecast to grow to $60 billion by 2027.

FemTech, the opportunities are endless

But there is opportunity right now in the FemTech world.

Health Trackers are ubiquitous but female specific health trackers are relatively new. One example is The Bellabeat fitness tracker range, which are one-of-a-kind health and wellness trackers created for women, by women. Designed as an elegant bracelet or necklace that monitors your biometric data. It measures your physical and mental activity. From this it helps to identify what you need to do to level-up your self-care routines and reach peak performance. It even includes the impact a women’s menstrual cycle has on her health and well-being.

Consider the FemFit for example, a pelvic training device that not only reminds you to do your Kegel exercises but teaches you how to do them properly. Having trouble conceiving? There are now fertility devices, such as Kegg, that can pinpoint the best time for you to conceive. Pregnant and want some reassurance about your baby? Tools are available for monitoring your baby, like fetal heart rate monitors, and getting support at home. Struggling with breastfeeding? Check out these Lactamo balls! There are even companies developing smart undies for testing/monitoring of STIs and smart tampons for using menstrual blood to test for health. The opportunities are endless.

Menopause, typically the taboo subject of female health, is finding a new voice with products like the Embr Labs cooling bracelet, a bracelet that provides immediate relief to hot flashes. The best part? It looks like a stylish accessory and can be worn all day. The big question is “Why has it taken so long”?

Acknowledging the gender gap the first step

A big hurdle in narrowing the sex gap in healthcare is lack of awareness that such a gap still exists. Sex and gender perspectives in health and biology need to be integrated into all aspects of medicine, from health research to medical education, through to clinical practise. Many initiatives and Institutes have been formed around the world to address issues around sex/gender and health, such as Canada’s Institute of Gender and Health.

Government funding and support crucial to #BreakTheBias

New Zealand needs to follow suit and create a coherent plan to ensure we move towards a healthcare system that improves health for women and men, where sex and gender are integrated as key considerations across health research and care. We also need to transform the research space – ensuring sex and gender are integrated into health research and included in medical education. We need to ensure there is adequate funding for female-specific health issues and to foster female leaders in the STEM space to support innovation. Our impact can be increased by supporting female-led and FemTech businesses to help them translate their ideas for use in the real world.  And we need to raise awareness of the bias that still exists. We need to #BreakTheBias.