Navigating the Gender Gap in Chronic Health: Solutions for Employers

Written by Our Goodpath Expert: Anne Lowell, NBC-HWC, RYT-500, ACSM-EP

There’s no question that in today’s workforce, the impact of chronic conditions is far-reaching, affecting individuals, employers, and society at large. 

Chronic diseases are conditions that last over 1 year and require ongoing medical attention and/or limit activities of daily living, and it’s estimated that 86% of the United States’ $2.7 trillion in annual healthcare expenditures goes toward treatment and management of these conditions. Employers lose an estimated $4.95 billion due to limitations caused by chronic conditions. 

Unfortunately, one group disproportionately bears the burden of these chronic conditions: women*.

The Burden on Women

Women are more likely than men to have chronic disabling disorders and suffer from non-life-threatening diseases like autoimmune conditions, rheumatologic disorders, arthritis, and migraines, to name just a few. 

Women are also twice as likely to be overweight or obese, and are more at risk than men of developing comorbidities of obesity such as heart diseases, certain cancers, and mental health problems like depression. Many of the chronic conditions women are disproportionately affected by are those that cost employers the most.

A conversation about the gender gap in healthcare is incomplete without discussing reproductive health. The reproductive health journey spans from adolescence through menopause, and includes important milestones such as fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum care. Approximately 25% of women of childbearing age report having two or more chronic conditions which may impact reproductive health and increase the risk of infertility or pregnancy complications.

With these statistics in mind, it should be no surprise to hear that women spend more on healthcare per year than men. In fact, for out-of-pocket healthcare costs, women spend a shocking 20% more than men. 

As the number of women in the workforce continues to grow, it is more important than ever for employers to understand the gender gap - and help close it - by adopting a healthy workplace culture and a holistic benefits package that addresses the unique challenges women face.

Why does this gender gap exist?

Lack of Representation of Women in Health Research

Medical studies that inform current diagnosis and treatment of disease have historically been done on male cells and men. But gender is an important determinant of health. One’s gender influences a wide variety of factors, including perceived stress, smoking, physical activity, as well as disease susceptibility, making much of the research based on the male model less applicable, if at all, to individuals of the female sex and those who identify as a different gender.

In addition, there’s simply less funding for research focused on chronic conditions that primarily affect women, like endometriosis and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.

Bias & Discrimination

Gender has been shown to influence how health policies are developed, medical technologies engineered, and even how health providers interact with their patients. For example, women are more likely to face bias and gaslighting of their symptoms by providers, leading to higher rates of late diagnosis or misdiagnosis. Studies also show that women are more likely to be told by healthcare professionals that their symptoms are “in their head”, and due to “over-anxiousness”, even when test results indicate a real disorder

Social support is directly linked to better health, and research shows that women with chronic conditions are less likely than men to receive support by peers and family members. As a result, women are less able to effectively cope with their conditions than their male counterparts, which leads to worse health outcomes.

This bias and discrimination extends into the workplace as well. Women with chronic conditions may feel hesitant to utilize benefits and advocate for necessary workplace accommodations due to fear of judgment or negative repercussions from supervisors or colleagues.

Socioeconomic Differences

Another explanation for this gender gap has to do with socioeconomic status. Although progress has been made, women still tend to be paid less than men, and are much more likely to be in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions, predisposing them to chronic disease and a lower quality of life.

Other social determinants of health, such as race, ethnicity, and education, often intersect with socioeconomic status. Women who belong to marginalized or underprivileged groups may face compounded barriers to healthcare access and health equity, further exacerbating the gender gap.

Recommendations for Employers

Given that women comprise nearly 47% of the workforce, a benefits package that addresses the unique challenges they face in healthcare, and a workplace culture that promotes equity, is going to be more effective at reducing medical costs and improving employee health.

Employers have a huge opportunity to help dismantle gender-based and other disparities in preventive care and chronic disease management. Below is a list of the most important challenges women face and suggested solutions for employers to help close the gender gap and get women the support they need.

Problem 1: Women with chronic conditions experience fragmented care.

The Solution: Implement a benefits solution that prioritizes whole-person care. This comprehensive approach to medical condition management should include a few key elements: regular 1:1 personalized support with a coach and/or other specialized healthcare practitioner who can help navigate their care and promote healthy lifestyle changes, tailored education and resources, and a focus on addressing multiple aspects of an individual’s life that may contribute to disease.

Problem 2: Women with chronic conditions face bias and discrimination.

The Solution: Establish clear policies and procedures for addressing discrimination and bias in the workplace, provide diversity and sensitivity training for all employees, and implement fair and equitable health insurance coverage that addresses the specific needs of women, ensuring that insurance plans do not disproportionately burden women with chronic conditions through higher deductibles or copays.

Problem 3: Women at high-risk for certain chronic conditions are not identified and engaged in benefits solutions early enough.

The Solution: Implement a program that identifies and engages early on with those who are high-risk. This program should regularly provide high-quality educational content and digital tools that explore different conditions and provide sex and gender-specific health information to empower women to engage in preventative measures. Work with benefits providers to target communications to employees making claims for conditions that your existing benefits solutions can provide care for.

Key Takeaways

  • Women are more likely than men to have chronic, disabling disorders and experience bias and discrimination that puts them at a disadvantage for improved health.

  • Women spend more on healthcare than men, making them an important population to focus on when it comes to reducing healthcare costs and improving outcomes.

  • Employers can help close the gender gap and empower women with chronic conditions to improve their health & wellness by designing a benefits program that prioritizes holistic, integrated care and eliminates health disparities.

To learn more about Goodpath’s equitable whole-person care and request a demo for your organization, please visit our site.

*It's important to acknowledge the difference between gender and biological sex in healthcare research, as both of these categories play significant roles in determining health outcomes. Much of the existing research, including many of the studies referenced in this article, refer to 'women' when discussing individuals who are biologically female. This narrow focus limits our understanding of how chronic health conditions impact individuals across the gender spectrum, underscoring the need for more inclusive research that considers the diverse experiences of individuals of different sexes and gender identities.