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International Women’s Day

By 20 February 2024February 28th, 2024Health, Latest, Lifestyle, MAI News, Special

Article written by Naomi Thornton, Nurse – Infoline & Migraine Support

Happy International Women’s Day!

International Women’s Day on the 8th of March is fast approaching, and it is an important day in the Migraine Ireland calendar as women are three times more likely to experience migraine. In fact, the data shows that Migraine is the leading cause of disability in women aged 15-49. (1)

We were excited to hear recently about a commitment from MEP and Vice-Chair of the Women’s Rights Committee Radka Maxova to establishing a European Migraine Action Plan. (Read more here: https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/news/article/migraines-in-europe-and-their-adverse-prevalence-in-women).

This is good news for everyone living with migraine but it is especially significant in that it specifically addresses migraine in the context of compounding existing systemic gender inequality such as in the workplace.

In light of this news and in the spirit of celebrating women everywhere living with, caring for someone living with or working in the field of headache, we wanted to explore the impact of migraine on women, and the impact of women on migraine.

History

Historically, migraine had been chronically dismissed as “women’s hysteria” so let’s start with the word “hysteria”. Conjuring up images of outrageous overreaction, the “hysterical” person tends to be scoffed at or dismissed as unnecessary. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines hysteria as “extreme fear, excitement, anger, etc. that cannot be controlled.” The thesaurus offers us the following synonyms: “agitation, delirium, excitement , frenzy ,madness”

Hysterical crying, or even hysterical laughter are descriptions of behaviours to which there is associated shame or embarrassment. It is safe to say that being described as hysterical does not foster confidence in trusting the “hysterical” person’s version of events.

Hysteria

Did you know that the origins of the word “Hysteria” are rooted in latin meaning “wandering uterus”? What exactly does this mean in relation to the origins of attitudes to women’s health – that our mental health ought be dismissed by or explained because of our uterus and associated hormonal activity or our that female hormonal activity should be ascribed to mental health issues?

It essentially amounts to collective gaslighting of gigantic proportions, that dates back millennia and from it stems the root of much of today’s stigma in relation to headache that continues to deny the realities of all who live with migraine today. Today, we are still battling the results of so many layers of neglect of women’s health. What does this mean for the daily lives of people living with headache today?

Tradition

There is a saying that has always resonated with me as a working Mam:

“Women are expected to parent like they don’t have a job and work like they don’t have children”

It got me thinking – how does this concept apply in the lives of women who live with migraine?

Women are expected to work like they don’t have migraine.

Women are expected to parent like they don’t have migraine.

Women are expected to study like they don’t have migraine.

Women are expected to socialise like the don’t have migraine

Women are expected to LIVE like they don’t have migraine.

Where does this leave men’s health?

It is a fact that men are slower to come forward with health concerns than women. When they do, their issues are frequently more advanced and harder to treat as a result. Men have a lower life expectancy than women. Cultural expectations on men not to be perceived as feminine, and all that is associated with femininity such as weakness or our word of the moment, hysteria, have silently devastated men’s lives for as long as they have women’s .

We know that only roughly 10 per cent of people who live with migraine come forward for treatment ever at all, we cannot say without any certainty how many men really live with this condition. Condescending attitudes that have chronically belittled women, have left men suffering alone in a veil of silence.

Stigma

Stigma is a lot more than just frustration. It is dangerous. Suffering in debilitated silence is dangerous. Workplace culture for example, is only in the very early stages of beginning to accept difference and disability. With emphasis remaining squarely on growth and extreme productivity, most workplaces fail to accept disability as a normal part of the human condition. Fear of stigma and discrimination continues to force people into silent suffering.

Right now, it is safe to say that across most workplaces in Ireland, there are employees contributing high value to their teams, whilst battling alone with some of the most debilitating symptoms that can be experienced. This puts individuals more at risk of burnout, prolonged sick leave and negative workplace outcomes such as  poor review’s etc, leaving those who live with migraine more are risk of falling through the cracks and out of work altogether.

When individuals are obstructed from working, this limits their access to finance, to credit, to personal autonomy, to skill building and essentially to independence and safety. It is important to contextualise here that women are already up against gender pay gaps, glass ceilings and workplace discrimination of many varieties.

Working off the evidence we have, if people who live with migraine are more likely to experience personal improvement plans etc, then three out of every four of these negative outcomes happen to women. Women who live with chronic illness are extremely vulnerable. Women who are not working, whether by choice or otherwise, cannot continue to be voiceless and vulnerable. They need meaningful supports and services that engage with and value them in our society.

Women’s Health

Workplace inequality affects the migraine landscape in many nuanced ways. Importantly, women also live today with many legacy issues from being historically eliminated from the workforce, including women becoming healthcare professionals, scientists and policy makers, so we as women have only recently been able to start addressing and tackling our own issues with any kind of meaningful autonomy.

Women’s health, including women’s brain health specifically, has been chronically and historically under researched and this is a significant factor in why so little is understood in relation to migraine and other headache disorders.

In Irish healthcare, we are now thankfully at a 45:55 women to men doctor ratio, however the IMO report lasting discrepancies in some specialities, including Neurology which stands at 30:70 ratio of female to male neurologists, as of 2017. These are legacy issues from a system that eliminated women from education and work, that will take time to catch up and balance. Our female neurologists, researchers and  specialists are very much trailblazers, and the advances that can be made in this field with them at the helm are untold.

What can be done?

To come back to the beginning of the article, where we mentioned the pioneering of the European Migraine Action Plan, spearheaded by MEP and Vice-Chair of the Women’s Rights Committee Radka Maxova, it is a shining example of the feats that can be achieved by increasing female representation at parliament level.

Presently in Ireland there are 36 female TDs in a 160 seat Dáil Éireann, and that is an improvement from previous Dáil compositions. In fact, there have been at total of 131 women elected since the foundation of the state. Not enough to fill one Dáil on their own yet. There is much that can be hoped for by improving the gender balance of women in politics and in power.

On a local level, this International Women’s Day that can be done to reduce stigma and foster a more inclusive, accepting and understanding society for all.

On an individual level, we can each look at our own unconscious perceptions of disability, and make an informed decision to be mindful of invisible disability. Employers can take steps to foster workplace cultures that supporting and welcome employees who live with chronic illness.

Each of us has a role to play in building a society that recognises disability as part of the human condition, and a more inclusive culture that nurtures each individual.

(1) Steiner TJ, Stovner LJ, Jensen R, Uluduz D, Katsarava Z; Lifting The Burden: the Global Campaign against Headache. Migraine remains second among the world’s causes of disability, and first among young women: findings from GBD2019. J Headache Pain. 2020 Dec 2;21(1):137. doi: 10.1186/s10194-020-01208-0. PMID: 33267788; PMCID: PMC7708887.