President Johnson Speaks on the Pressing Issue of Gender Equality in Women’s Health on National Public Radio

President Johnson Speaks on the Pressing Issue of Gender Equality in Women’s Health on National Public Radio
Photo provided by Video still, Paula A. Johnson TED Talk
April 12, 2017

In a recent interview, Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson said that men and women experience diseases in different ways, which could lead to serious errors in diagnosis, treatment, and medication. Johnson, a leading voice on women’s health issues, discussed her views during an interview on National Public Radio’s TED Radio Hour programone-on-one interviews with internationally known leaders who have previously given TED Talks.

Women have different cellular profiles from men, she said in the segment. “Today, we know that every cell has a sex. What this means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular levels, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints,” said Johnson, who was a professor and faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health before coming to lead Wellesley in 2016.

“We’ve learned that there are major differences in the ways that women and men experience disease,” she said. “But we’re not making the investment in fully understanding the extent of these sex differences.” Johnson also noted, “We aren’t taking what we have learned and routinely applying it in clinical care. So we have to ask ourselves the question: Why leave women’s health to chance?”

Johnson gave examples of the disparities between men and women in matters of health. She explained that women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression. “Even with this high prevalence, women are misdiagnosed between 30 and 50 percent of the time,” she said. They suffer fatigue, sleep disturbance, and anxiety, but these symptoms are often overlooked. 

Sex differences can also be a factor in the effectiveness of drugs. Several years ago, the drug Ambien was found to affect men and women differently, she said. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration changed the recommended dose for women, cutting it in half.  “There are other drugs that are metabolized quite differently in women, leading to different effects,” she said.

Johnson, widely known for work that has improved the lives of women and girls everywhere, was recently named as one of the “Top 25 Women in Higher Education and Beyond” by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. The publication praised her “distinguished career in public health” and her “pioneering research on how gender affects the practice of medicine.”