Adults take girls' pain less seriously than boys'

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Adults judge boys' pain as being more severe than girls', finds a new new Yale study, which suggests that we take girls' pain less seriously - and from an early age, too.

As part of the research, published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, a group of participants were shown a video of a five-year-old undergoing a finger-stick test at the doctor. Afterwards, they were asked to rate how much pain they thought the child was experiencing on a scale from 0 (no pain) to 100 (severe pain.)

And here's where it gets interesting.

Those in the group who knew the child as "Samuel" determined that he was in more pain than the group who knew the child as "Samantha". Specifically, participants indicated that Samuel experienced an average pain score of 50.42, while Samantha's was a mean of 45.9.

 "We found that the "boy" was rated as experiencing more pain than the "girl" despite identical clinical circumstances and identical pain behaviour across conditions," the authors write.

Why might that be the case? 

"Explicit gender stereotypes—for example, that boys are more stoic or girls are more emotive—may bias adult assessment of children's pain," the researchers suggest.

But the plot thickens. 

Female participants rated pain at a mean of 53.1 when it was Samuel and 45.69 for Samantha, a finding the researchers note was unexpected - and one they struggled to explain.


"Why it is that female, but not male, participants in our study rated "Samuel" as experiencing more pain than "Samantha" is not immediately clear, but this should be kept in mind and explored in future research," they note.

Despite raising more questions, the researchers believe the results will also have important implications - particularly when it comes to health care. 

"We really hope that these findings will lead to further investigation into the potential role of biases in pain assessment and health care more generally," said co-author Joshua Monrad. "If the phenomena that we observed in our studies generalise to other contexts, it would have important implications for diagnosis and treatment."

That said, it's also important to note, that adults in the study weren't parents of the child or medical professionals. "We therefore cannot speak to the applicability of our findings to judgments made in the context of a parent-child relationship or in a healthcare consultation," the researchers caution. 

If the results sound familiar, it's because they tell a familiar story, one we're already aware of when it comes to males and females. Previous research has found that women's pain is also consistently taken less seriously than men's. One study revealed that women in acute stomach pain were less likely to receive pain relief than men, and waited longer for it to be administered than their male counterparts. "Gender bias" was touted as a possible explanation for the differences.

A comprehensive review of the research in a paper titled: "The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain," comes to the same conclusion: "Differences between men and women exist in the experience of pain, with women experiencing and reporting both more frequent and greater pain. Yet rather than receiving greater or at least as effective treatment for their pain as men, women are more likely to be less well treated than men for their painful symptoms.

"There are numerous factors that contribute to this under-treatment, but the literature supports the conclusion that there are gender based biases regarding women's pain experiences."

While lab research might seem far removed from real-life, as parents the Yale study is food for thought. If you're concerned that your child - particularly girl's - pain isn't being taken seriously by health professionals, then don't be afraid to advocate for them - and trust your gut.