UN Women's top ten list of countries that have achieved equality of the sexes speaks volumes about sometimes deadly prejudice against women – Susan Dalgety

Isn’t medical research a wonderful thing? Scientists have isolated the genetic material that puts pregnant women at risk of getting pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening condition.

Pregnancy remains potentially dangerous for women, but in the US the leading cause of death is not a medical complication, but being shot (Picture: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Pregnancy remains potentially dangerous for women, but in the US the leading cause of death is not a medical complication, but being shot (Picture: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

Hopefully, this discovery will lead to a blood test early in pregnancy that will identify those most likely to be at risk. I still recall with a shudder the long hot summer of 1976 when I spent six weeks in hospital, confined to bed and heavily sedated.

A naïve teenager, I barely knew what my uterus was, let alone what the consultant meant when he told me I was suffering from pre-eclampsia toxaemia and that both my unborn child and I were at risk of death.

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I understood the condition a bit more by the time of my second pregnancy four years later, at least enough to know that I was quite unlucky to have it again, and while medication kept my blood pressure stable most of the time, the drugs almost killed my second son.

And my chronic hypertension, for which I have received treatment for nearly 30 years, was likely the result of how my body reacted to those two pregnancies.

Despite huge strides in recent decades, pregnancy and childbirth remain dangerous for some women. A study carried out across the UK and Ireland into maternity care shows that black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy than their white peers, with Asian women twice as likely. And women living in the most deprived areas are also twice as likely to die as those who live in the most affluent areas.

But shocking as these statistics are, they are nothing compared to the revelation that in America the leading cause of death among pregnant women is not pre-eclampsia or blood clots, but gun shots.

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Researchers found that pregnant women, or those who had been pregnant in the past 42 days, known as the post-partum period, are murdered at more than twice the rate that women die of pregnancy-related conditions. And simply being pregnant increases a woman’s chance of being killed. The risk of a woman being murdered is 16 per cent higher when she is pregnant.

Vijay Singh, of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, who studies the impact of domestic abuse, said of the study: “You can’t understand a problem unless you can measure it.”

Well, indeed, which leads to me to the next jaw-dropping piece of research about women and how our female physiology adversely affects our health. I had to read this article several times to take it in, and when I told a dear friend about it, I could tell she thought I had misread the findings. I wish I had.

A study of 1.3 million patients across Ontario – a large sample by any measure – has revealed that a woman is more likely to die if she is operated on by a male surgeon than a woman. She is also at greater risk of complications and being readmitted to hospital if it’s a man wielding the scalpel.

And it’s not a minuscule risk either. Women are 32 per cent more likely to die if their surgeon is a man. The co-author of the findings, Dr Angela Jerath, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, suggests that “implicit sex biases” may be one explanation for the deadly difference.

Implicit sex bias is the technical term for deeply ingrained sexist attitudes towards women and girls, and we suffer from the impact of such perceptions from an early age. You know the script, it’s from where those harmful gender stereotypes emerge. Girls are kind, boys tough. Girls are better at reading while boys are wizards at maths. Weak. Strong. Pink. Blue. Girl. Boy.

It’s as old as humanity itself. It traps women in poverty. It justifies sexual abuse. And it kills us. Every day women and girls die needlessly because of implicit sex bias, but even I, a battle-weary feminist, was shocked that some of the world’s most skilled surgeons seem guilty of it. That when they cut open a women’s chest to repair her broken heart, they do it with less care because she is ‘only’ a woman.

Just as there have been significant strides in improving women’s health – the work on pre-eclampsia is a recent example – so there has been progress in other areas of life where women are treated differently to men because of our sex. Which is all of them.

The pay gap is narrowing, slowly. Women’s political representation is growing, slowly. Girls around the globe are getting an education, slowly.

But the Covid pandemic has stalled most of the progress made in the last few decades. The European Commission says that it has “exacerbated existing inequalities between women and men in almost all areas of life, both in Europe and beyond, rolling back on the hard-won achievements of past years”.

One of Scotland’s leading women’s organisations, Engender, has joined forces with similar groups across the UK to examine the impact of the pandemic on women. Their findings make for bleak reading.

And in one of the most depressing tweets I have seen recently – and believe me there have been many – UN Women listed the top ten countries that have achieved equality of the sexes. Except there are none. Not one. Their chart was empty.

So what can we do but keep exposing the implicit – and explicit – biases that stunt the lives of so many women and girls across the world, in rich countries and poor? The struggle continues.

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