Break the Bias

Since October 2021, four countries have inaugurated female Presidents or Prime Ministers – Barbados, Tunisia, Sweden and in January 2022, Honduras. Neena Gupta of the Indian Statistical Institute of Kolkatta, won the prestigious 2021 DST-ICTP-IMU Ramanujan Prize for young mathematicians from developing countries, becoming the first Indian to do so. Women have also done well in other fields – sports, business, and beauty. This International Women’s Day also we have a lot to celebrate; however, as the theme for this year ‘Break the Bias’ indicates– the road ahead is still long.

World Economic Forum data suggests that the COVID pandemic has increased the projected time needed to close the Global Gender Gap from 99.5 years to a whopping 135.6 years! Much like the rest of life, gender equality too has a pre and post COVID trajectory. Along with traditional issues, there are a host of challenges that have emerged for women.

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The pandemic has brought focus on health – both public and the individual, putting the spotlight on traditional gender bias in health research. Historically, women have not been participants in clinical trials, although this is changing. The reasons ranged from protecting women in the reproductive age group from drugs that could affect future foetuses, to ideas that female hormones could impact the research, and to the belief that men were simply worth more! As per reports, one of the largest funders of health research in the world, the US National Institute of Health ‘applies a disproportionate share of its resources to diseases that affect primarily men, at the expense of those that primarily affect women”.

As a result of this bias, women receive healthcare that is not based on a complete understanding of their bodies. They also face discrimination in attention – with fewer and less timely interventions, and less referrals to specialists.

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The same bias applies to mental health issues too. Men and women respond differently to stress. Men are documented to have more physiological responses like blood pressure, while women tend to have more psychological responses that give rise to different diseases. 

The gender bias in medicine and medical research is something that has to be addressed on priority. Being half the world’s population women deserve healthcare advise on research that is based on their own biology.

The emerging post pandemic workplace is also a challenge for women. Whether hybrid or completely work from home – the rules that will govern must take into account the needs of the female workforce. Bearing the brunt of care giving responsibilities, women were the primary job losers in the pandemic. To help them to return to work, childcare facilities and a flexible working framework where women flourish instead of getting burdened by competing demands are of paramount importance. They cannot be left behind in the new paradigm.

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The pandemic has also focused attention on concentration of numbers in cities, and future urban planning. Worldwide cities and urban spaces have been planned for and built by men, for men – and consequently gender blind. Our cities are mostly exclusionary and hostile to the needs of women. From basic amenities like public toilets and proper lighting, to larger issues like making urban spaces secure for women by mixing residential and commercial areas or ensuring safe and predictable public transport – infrastructure planning needs a gender lens.

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The rise of cyber stalking and harassment of women during the pandemic has turned the spotlight on the need for a robust regulatory framework that addresses the liability of the preparators and transmitters, and the responsibilities of the internet service providers. Much like offline violence that seeks to subdue women, online violence seeks to silence them.

If there is more than a century to go, before we finally ‘Break the Bias”, then every International Women’s Day we need to take stock of and find ways to address the  challenges that emerge on the journey.

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Published in Hindi in the Dainik Bhaskar on 9-3-2022

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