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We Need to Talk About the Sexism Against Women in Healthcare

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When talking about sexism in healthcare I usually get one of the following reactions: disbelief and unawareness, likely paired with a bit of rolling eyes, or someone nods immediately as they have either had a similar experience as me or know someone else who’s been met with sexism in healthcare, so their reaction is sympathetic and knowing. Sometimes when I get the latter reaction it seems like the person might be relieved in a way, knowing they’re not alone. Sometimes that’s how I feel getting the latter reaction. The more aware of this issue I become as a young, chronically ill woman, the clearer it is that it’s an issue that needs to be talked about. It’s not a rare issue, and by talking about my experiences I hope to raise awareness of this issue, even though there may come a certain fear and insecurity with talking about it.


It was years before things got really bad for me that I started hearing that one single explanation: that my health issues were all because I’m a
sensitive girl. Years before things got really bad for me, I had been fighting various health issues, and even though I had a history of some more serious issues as a little child already, more often than not I was only told: “Well! You are a sensitive girl, it’s just the stress,” as a reaction to any issues I’ve had. All the infections, pains, fevers, immune system refusing to work right, I just always heard I’m a sensitive – or rather oversensitive – young girl and that’s simply how it is, and should I relax more, my issues would disappear. I can’t even begin to explain how discouraging that was and how ingrained the thought became in my mind.

And so, I’ve had to get used to my issues being handled this way. Being taken seriously at the doctor’s office was something I could only dream of. When things got to the tipping point and I went to the ER with the symptoms for the first time, my father went with me because I went to the children’s hospital still. I remember feeling hopeless and getting told they’re probably not going to be able to help me only a few moments after I stepped in. I remember all the doctors in the room listening to my father talk instead of listening to me, even though it made no sense as he never went to see doctors with me, never knew much about my health issues and was just with me because I needed an adult to go with. And yet all the eyes were pinned on him instead of me, even though I tried to tell the doctors the information he’s giving is not 100 percent accurate and I’d rather explain it myself.

After I was hospitalized they sent a psychiatrist in. His conclusion was that I’m a sensitive girl who simply cares a lot and needs to relax. I did some blood tests – the results of which I never got back after that – and was left to go home.

As I was still classified as child and went to children’s hospitals, I still held huge trust in the healthcare system, but I started feeling betrayed because doctors dismissing my issues led to issues with finding a doctor who wouldn’t base their assumptions on the ones previously made. And it was difficult to be taken seriously outside of healthcare system as well. When you’re a teenage girl, people may often imply your opinions are not as worthy and your thoughts are not as valuable. And so, even though I felt like there was something wrong, I didn’t stand a chance against opinions of doctors who kept implying I was too sensitive and was overreacting and completely exaggerating, without performing tests they likely should have.

I breathed a sigh of relief when one of my new neurologists was a woman as I thought that might ensure I’d get taken seriously for once. I went in with daily severe pain, pain that felt unbearable at times, but all I heard from her was that I’m probably just very sensitive, at which point I started feeling a bit hopeless. When she saw my hands were shaking she tapped her skull pointedly while looking at my mother, and it seemed like she’d made her decision already. When we were leaving she called my mum back and asked her if she thought it was possible I was just making it all up, that maybe it was stress, maybe the issues weren’t real, weren’t that bad, that I was avoiding school… I got no painkillers that would work and I didn’t get an answer. I only got some vitamins for my severe pain.

When the said doctor ran an EEG, the results were a bit out of the normal range, but we were told that’s just because I’m oversensitive – that actually happens!

At last we managed to get me an MRI appointment which showed there was something pushing above my first vertebrae and it’s probably the cause of my problems. The doctor told us the MRI of my brain found something that was the cause of my pain, but she wasn’t sure what it was, so we needed to find help ourselves. I was very scared at that point. When you know something was found on the MRI of your brain but you don’t know what it is, that’s a scary place to be left in.

We were left with no information about what was wrong, whether it was serious or terminal or anything really. And even now as I’m sitting here, long after this something (likely a result of an infection, but I don’t want to get into that as that is not the point of this story) was found, doctors still treat me like it’s not as serious as I’m making it out to be. One doctor just recently laughed and said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna help you, Miss. Have a nice day!” and then made to shake my hand. I rarely find a doctor who listens to what I’m telling them without brushing it off. I still have yet to find someone who takes my pain seriously and tries to find some medication to make it a bit more bearable, even though I might never get rid of it.

Still, as there’s no obvious reason for my pain, I’m being treated like I’m just too sensitive and my pain isn’t that bad. I can’t even describe what it feels like to go to a specialist, tell them the high numbers on the pain scale I get to and have them roll their eyes mildly and follow it up with disbelieving implications I am exaggerating. Curiously, the most commonly used adjectives – “sensitive” and “oversensitive” – are paired with the nouns “woman” or “girl.” And curiously, people who know nothing about me or my condition and are not a part of the healthcare system seem to often imply similar things.

As surgeries are too risky, I am left with checking in with many different specialists just to confirm I am still ill and in pain. There are other illnesses than this I’m likely developing and with each new symptom and doctor I am realizing something’s got to change.

Those are just a few examples of how I’ve been met with sexism in healthcare, but surprisingly, whenever I mention that the healthcare system discriminates against women, people are surprised. The truth is, many women with chronic pain feel the system is discriminating against them. Maybe people in the healthcare system don’t even realize they’re being influenced by sexism, but that’s why we need to talk about it.

Just a few days ago I was in so much pain that I was a few seconds from going to the emergency room, but I found myself thinking about how it was probably going to end up being brushed off. And I know I am not the only chronically ill woman who feels like this.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia.

Originally published: August 1, 2017
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