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Weighing in on the "War on Women"
Zaje A.T. Harrell, PhD, and Cashuna T. Huddleston, MA, Women's Health SIG Outlook Liaisons
Reframing Women's Health Policy
A few years ago there was some discussion at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine as to whether the Women's Health Special Interest Group was still relevant. Fast forward a few years and an election cycle and women's health issues are again in the news in the form of debates over contraceptive coverage and funding of preventive health services. Granted, the larger popular discussion of the "War on Women" has been divisive and partisan, however, it has served to highlight the importance of women's health. Unfortunately, recent public discussion of women's health issues has focused on issues related to women's reproductive health to the exclusion of broader issues. The cultural conversation about women's lives and choices is making women's health research even more relevant.
Consistent with SBM's efforts to increase our visibility in the policy arena (http://www.sbm.org/about/public-policy), current debates about women's health issues present unique opportunities for SBM researchers to weigh in more broadly about women's wellness. There is also an opportunity to change the conversation. The popular narrative of women's health focuses on women during their child bearing years with little attention paid to social context. We propose focusing on women's health across the lifespan in the context of social status. We also argue that there needs to be an increase in the visibility and input of women's health researchers to aid in informing public policies.
Lifespan and Women's Health
Women's health should be considered from girlhood through older adulthood. The range of needs of women will shift and change throughout that time in terms of the type of primary, preventive and curative care needs. Thus, the concepts of women's health should be considered as they occur across the lifespan. While many of the controversies in women's health focus on issues related to sexuality, there are other topics that are important to consider. The Women's Health SIG can help to contribute to a more rational and evidence-based discussion of women's health by framing issues related to sexuality and health as just one critically important area of women's health. However, it is also important to address gender issues and equity in our tackling of other health related issues such as chronic disease prevention, disease management, and access to care.
Social Status and Women's Health
Women's social status affects health outcomes. Research on health disparities points to the intersection of gender, race and social status as critically important: poor women and ethnic minority women are at higher risk for certain diseases (i.e., cerebrovascular disease, obesity) and poor health outcomes. Furthermore, the experience of sexism in our culture has an influence on women's well-being and access to resources. For example, fair pay remains elusive for American women. Experiences of gender-based harassment and discrimination are also far too common place and can result in mental health consequences. According to Dr. NiCole Buchanan, a clinical psychologist whose research focuses on sexual and racial harassment, there are a number of conditions including posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression that result from experiences of discrimination. She also notes that: "The physical health effects are equally broad ranging from pregnancy complications and increased infant mortality, chronic headaches, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure and even heart disease" (N. Buchanan, personal communication, June 5, 2012).
Increasing the Profile of Women's Health Researchers
Finally, it is important to note that the Women's Health SIG provides a wealth of resources in terms of researchers and practitioners who have expertise in chronic disease, lifespan health and health disparities. In February 2012, when a congressional panel on contraception was convened with no female members, there was a public outcry. Women's health research benefits from scientists who can set a research agenda and also speak to policy issues. Dr. Isis Settles, a social psychologist who studies women scientists, posits that "One positive thing is that the experiences of women in the sciences is at the forefront for many individuals, institutions, and organizations, so there are many of us working to figure out ways to improve their experiences so that more women can enter the sciences and reach the highest levels" (I. Settles, personal communication, June 5, 2012). There needs to be a bridge between the scientific community and policy makers in women's health. SBM members can play a role in building this bridge by supporting female scientists to reach the highest levels in their respective fields and by becoming more visible in guiding an evidence-based conversation about women's health.
1. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/birth-control-hearing-was-like-stepping-into-a-time-machine/. Accessed: 2012-06-14. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/68Q9sFsfL)