A report published in the January edition of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology recounts how researchers from Yale and Georgia State expanded upon a 2014 study of how children express pain.
Do doctors take women’s pain less seriously?
Women are often assumed to be both more sensitive and more expressive than men, so a woman in pain may be taken less seriously. On the other hand, men are generally seen as more stoic, and therefore more reluctant to report pain, so male pain may be deemed to be more severe.
In pediatric terms, people generally think that boys are tougher than girls. So it’s usually understood that, when a boy and a girl are experiencing exactly the same amount of actual pain, the boy will exhibit fewer observable signs or symptoms of that pain.
Is this true or is pervasive societal stereotypes negatively influencing how health care providers respond to women in pain compared to men?
The study simply shows a video of a 5-year-old wince in pain after a finger pinprick
The 264 adults participating in the study were divided into two groups. Each group was then shown the same short video clip of a five-year-old child undergoing a finger pinprick to draw blood.
One group of viewers saw a child named Samantha, and the other group saw a child named Samuel. But “Samuel” and “Samantha” were each the very same five-year-old child, who was, of course, undergoing exactly the same medical procedure.
The child subject was a girl, but for purposes of the studies she was wearing unisex clothing (a T-shirt and shorts). She was also presented in a way to keep her gender ambiguous.
When the adults were watching “Samuel” wince in pain, they rated his pain at 50.42 on a 0 to 100 scale. But when the viewers saw “Samantha” wince in pain, her pain was downgraded to 45.90. In other words, the identical procedure causing identical outward symptoms of pain in the identical child was seen as about 5% more severe when the child was understood to be a boy than when the viewers perceived the child as a girl.
One result was surprising, even to the authors of the study
Of those 264 adult pain-assessing participants, 156 were male and 108 were female. The 156 men thought “Samantha’s” pain was about equal to “Samuel” expressing pain. It was the 108 women in the study who were responsible for downgrading the observed pain when the child was thought to be a girl.
Societal stereotypes influence how medical care providers respond to female pain
The study does acknowledge the literature showing that pervasive societal stereotypes do appear to influence the ways in which medical care providers respond to a woman in pain.
The social media reaction to the study on pain in children has been swift and strong
The headline of the Washington Post coverage was, “Americans take the pain of girls less seriously than that of boys.” CNN chimed in with, “A new study finds Americans take the pain of girls less seriously than that of boys.”
The report in the feminist media outlet Jezebel led with, “Girls’ Pain Taken Less Seriously Than Boys” and included an interesting commentary: “What a lovely reminder that sexism is deeply entrenched and operational in every single part of our lives.”
Conclusions from the study on female pain versus male pain
Another explanation, perhaps more likely to be accurate, is that societal stereotypes are imposed even among children. Girls may be informed by their ambient societal context that it’s more okay for girls to express pain than it is for boys.
So maybe girls are given more societal permission than boys to overtly demonstrate their pain. And maybe the female study participants who tended to discount “Samantha’s” pain were accurately responding to how little girls are taught to think.
And maybe it’s okay for little girls to be more open and vulnerable, even when it comes to expressing pain, because that’s an effective way to elicit healthy and appropriate empathy. Maybe we should all be more open and vulnerable.
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We approach our work armed with tried and true medical techniques and state-of-the-art regenerative strategies bred from sports medicine and the neurological sciences. And we certainly treat all patients (and genders) equally.
The Nuvo team of medical professionals is solely dedicated to minimizing or eradicating pain by resolving the underlying conditions that cause the pain. We are proud that we consistently achieve that goal and successfully enhance our patients’ overall quality of life.
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