Women’s health took center stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week with the presentation of the first-ever report on the gender health gap and its health and economic toll. Authored by the McKinsey Health Institute and World Economic Forum, the report found addressing the health gap—which currently equates to 75 million years of life lost due to poor health or early death—could boost the global economy by at least $1 trillion annually by 2040.
While women live longer on average, they face a variety of health disadvantages compared with men and spend 25 percent more of their lives in poor health. Fixing this could add seven healthy days per woman per year on average, leading to longer lives and more days spent in good health.
Women with very serious health conditions wind up lost in health systems for years.
“Our firm’s commitment to sustainable and inclusive growth requires everyone to be in their best health, but women have been left behind,” explains Lucy Pérez, a McKinsey senior partner who leads the McKinsey Health Institute’s health equity portfolio and was a lead author of the report. “We found this is a global problem with major implications including lower quality of life, limited employment opportunities, and barriers to accessible medical care.”
The analysis is based on a detailed assessment of the 64 conditions that account for more than 85 percent of the female global disease burden in total. The report outlines several sobering statistics. In analyzing more than 650 academic research papers, the team found that close to half didn’t provide data on sex-based differences.
“This data gap leads to a lack of understanding of how medicine and science work for women, and it contributes to their often receiving substandard care,” says McKinsey partner and MHI report co-author Anouk Petersen. “The team found that in only half of cases was sex-disaggregated data available, and in those cases, women were disadvantaged more than two-thirds of the time.”
Sexual and reproductive health has often been treated as the extent of women’s health, but the report found that their health burden is much wider than that. Studies from Denmark showed that women wait longer for a diagnosis than men for a range of diseases—up to 2.5 years longer for cancer and 4.5 years for diabetes.
“There are many conditions that impact women differently or disproportionately,” says Valentina Sartori, a McKinsey partner and co-author of the MHI report. “When women present with certain symptoms, the healthcare system might fail to recognize them. For example, one study found that women were up to seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the emergency department during a heart attack.”
This is an opportunity for women to make choices for themselves.
At the same time, women-specific conditions such as endometriosis remain undiagnosed and untreated.
“Women with very serious health conditions wind up lost in health systems for years, sometimes being told the condition is ‘in their head,’ when in fact they have a serious illness,” says Megan Ann Greenfield, a McKinsey partner and MHI-affiliated leader.
All this helps explain why even though women generally live longer than men, they spend an average of nine years in poor health or with a disability. And these health challenges don’t come in women’s twilight years, but when they are likely to be in the workforce: About half of the healthy years that women lose come between ages 20 to 60.
The financial cost of these lost days of health is significant. Closing the women’s health gap by 2040 could add at least $1 trillion to the economy, and every US dollar invested in women’s health could add $3 to the economy. This applies to women working inside and outside the home. Addressing the gap could generate the equivalent impact of 137 million women accessing full-time positions by 2040, lifting many out of poverty.
“Eighty percent of the time, women are the primary caregiver in the family to sick people. A healthier population also means fewer people who need to spend time in unpaid caregiving work,” says Anouk. “This is an opportunity for women to make choices for themselves on how to use that additional freed up time.”
The report served as a catalyst for action, powering the launch of the Global Alliance of Women’s Health, committed to changing how women’s health is funded and prioritized. Hosted by World Economic Forum, the alliance will work across sectors to increase investment in women’s health and awareness of the issue on the global agenda. Within hours of launch, the report and the Alliance garnered significant media attention, with reports publishing in 50 countries and a surge of digital conversations appearing online using #CloseTheWomensHealthGap.
“On this topic, where partnership is key to impact, you could argue that the most important part of the report is the acknowledgement of over 100 collaborators involved,” says Lucy. "And this number will undoubtedly continue to grow.”