The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec

Agencies Agency Leadership Health & Pharma

The gender health gap: Why women’s health needs a rethink

By Claire Gillis, Chief executive officer, VML Health



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

Find out more

April 29, 2024 | 9 min read

For The Drum’s Health & Pharma focus week, VML Health’s Claire Gillis argues that marketers and researchers alike have to renew their focus on gendered gaps in health outcomes.

A woman with a flower crown

VML Health’s Claire Gillis on the continuing gender health gap / Autumn Goodman via Unsplash

For all of society’s talk about how much women count, the systems that underpin healthcare don’t count us properly at all. The net result is a women’s health gap at odds with advances in medicine. Something doesn’t add up.

Despite headline achievements in the fight for equality, the small print shows that women spend 25% more time in poor health than men. Almost half of that burden occurs during our working years, limiting our ability to earn money, build careers, and support our families. It’s hardly the platform for equality we need.

The drive for gender parity is contingent on our health. If we don’t level the playing field there, hard-won progress made elsewhere will be undermined. So, if we’re going to maximize pathways to equality of opportunity, we need to make health a priority focus.

Powered by AI

Explore frequently asked questions

The trillion-dollar question

Recent analysis from McKinsey says that the women’s health gap is a “$1 trillion dollar opportunity to improve lives and economies” – a claim that says as much about our current failings as it does the size of the opportunity ahead. According to the report, closing the gap will bring more women into the workplace, lifting many out of poverty, and creating a ripple-effect in quality of life.

But how do we do it? A good starting point might be to redefine our focus. Think ‘women’s health’ and your mind will probably leap to the obvious: menstruation, pregnancy, gynecology, menopause, etc. But women’s health is much more than reproductive or gynecological health. To limit our focus to those areas only wholly underrepresents the health challenges we face.

According to McKinsey, women-specific conditions like maternal or gynecological health account for just 5% of the women’s health burden. More than half of the total burden (56%) is caused by general conditions that are either more prevalent in women or manifest differently in women. Conditions like headache disorders, depression, and autoimmune diseases affect women disproportionately, while women are also more likely to become disabled during their lifetime. They’re also more likely to be obese, and are at a higher risk for heart failure or heart attack death.

So why the variation? Why do women spend 25% more time in poor health when only a fraction of their health burden comes from diseases specific to their gender or sex? The answers largely boil down to the usual suspects: gender disparities in access to health services, gender bias in patient care, and variations in the effectiveness of (or access to) medical treatment.

Two other factors quietly contribute to the disparity – and they’re two factors we have the power to change.

Limited sex- and gender-specific research

Studies indicate that a systemic deficit in disease understanding in women’s health correlates with a lack of sex- and gender-specific research. Nature analysis published last year reveals that conditions that disproportionately affect women (like migraine, headaches, CFS and anxiety) attract much less research funding than other diseases. According to the report, women’s health is “undervalued and understudied”.

Women are also underrepresented in clinical trials. It shouldn’t surprise us – they weren’t allowed to participate in trials until 1986. But it’s something we need to put right if we’re to better understand the sex-related biological differences that influence health, and develop more effective medicines for women.

Gaps in data

The shortfall in research inevitably leads to gaps in data, inhibiting evidence-based decision-making. According to McKinsey, many of the epidemiological and clinical datasets widely used today “fail to provide a complete picture of women’s health because they undercount and undervalue the health burden”. As the report warns: “when women’s health is invisible, there are missed opportunities to improve lives.”

An example can be seen in metastatic breast cancer (MBC), where flaws in the way cancer registries are built mean we cannot accurately count the number of people with MBC. Consequently, data is incomplete, compromising everything from drug development and policy decisions to treatment choices and experience design. It’s just one reason why people with MBC feel undervalued: when no-one can count you, it’s hard not to feel like you just don’t count.

Gaps in data are delaying progress in women’s health across the board. Communications can, of course, play a role in driving change, shining a light on disparity and reinforcing the value of lives reshaped by disease. Our recent initiative with Europa Donna, The Cancer Currency – does exactly that by ensuring that women with MBC are counted and valued.

Women count. We’ve got the tools to close the women’s health gap and maximize opportunities for gender equality. Let’s make it count.

For more analysis of the health and medicine landscapes, head over to our health and pharma in focus hub.

Suggested newsletters for you

Daily Briefing


Catch up on the most important stories of the day, curated by our editorial team.

Ads of the Week


See the best ads of the last week - all in one place.

The Drum Insider

Once a month

Learn how to pitch to our editors and get published on The Drum.

Agencies Agency Leadership Health & Pharma

Content by The Drum Network member:


VML is a leading creative company that combines brand experience, customer experience, and commerce, creating connected brands to drive growth. VML is celebrated...

Find out more

More from Agencies

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +