Celebrating 25 years of equitable research at WCH during Gender Equality Week

2020-09-09 3:46:23 PM

Every September, Women’s College Hospital Foundation proudly recognizes Gender Equality Week in Canada – an opportunity for Canadians across the country to celebrate the progress we’ve made in advancing gender equality, while reflecting on the work that remains to ensure everyone – regardless of gender – can reach their full potential.

This September, we are also thrilled to celebrate an important milestone in the history of gender-focused research in Canada - the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Women’s College Research Institute, Canada’s first research institute with a sole focus on women’s health!

Advancing gender equality is not new for Women’s College Hospital (WCH) - it has been central to our mission for over 135 years. In 1883, when women were barred from medical education, our founder, Dr. Emily Stowe, established Woman’s Medical College. In 1898, when it was difficult for female medical students to gain access to clinical training in Toronto hospitals, we established the Women’s Dispensary. In 1911, when women physicians were excluded from the medical staffs of hospitals, WCH was formed. As Canada’s first women’s general hospital operated by women physicians, WCH established ground-breaking clinical and research programs.

While a commitment to gender equality in healthcare, specifically in the area of health research, has long been a priority at WCH, women have historically remained greatly underrepresented in health research studies in Canada. Women of reproductive age were often excluded from clinical studies however; researchers did not believe that their exclusion had any impact on women’s health because it was assumed that medical research conducted exclusively on men was applicable to women. As late as the mid-1990s, it was estimated that only 5% of all research dollars were allocated to studies related to women’s health issues in Canada. However, WCH continued to contend that women’s health was adversely affected by gender biases in research. According to a report put out by The Centre for Research in Women's Health in 1996, “men and women are different – they have different metabolisms, endocrine systems, lifestyles and everyday concerns…. For women, being treated like a man can be deadly.”  
 Heather McLean, Director of CRWH with colleague at the CRWH

In 1995, WCH embarked on a new mission to conquer gender bias in health sciences research by establishing Canada’s first research institute solely dedicated to the research of women’s health, in partnership with the University of Toronto (UofT). Officially opening at WCH on September 14, 1995, The Centre for Research in Women’s Health (CRWH) was not only committed to women’s health research but also to examining the “interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, cultural and legal factors” on women’s health issues. The new research centre also established an important link between its research activities and clinical practice at WCH.
L-R: Dr Jean Kronberg, Chief of Anesthesia and CRWH Scientist; Dr Barbara Leighton, CRWH first Obstetrical Anasthesia Professor; Gail Regan, CRWH Donor - Circa 1997
Over the next decade, the CRWH produced innovative and high caliber research to contribute internationally to women’s health knowledge and helped to establish numerous academic chairs affiliated with UofT.

The CRWH also established a variety of educational programs for students. In 2002, its first annual Graduate Student Research Day in Women’s Health was held. The following year, the Summer Student Research Program for undergraduate, graduate and health professional program students was launched to provide hands-on research experience under the supervision CRWH scientists. In 2007, in partnership with UofT, the CRWH established Canada’s first collaborative graduate program in women’s health for both master’s and PhD students. These programs continue today at WCH and are instrumental in engaging and mentoring the next generation of women’s health researchers.

WCH furthered its commitment to gender equality through women’s health research with the launch of the Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) in October 2006. Currently led by WCH’s Vice-President of Research, Dr. Paula Rochon, this hospital-based research program is one of only a handful in the world to focus on women’s health. As an internationally recognized leader in women’s health research, the WCRI attracts world-class scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Thanks to the work of the WCRI, WCH continues to be ranked as one the top 40 research hospitals in Canada.

As we celebrate Gender Equality Week, we also acknowledge the unique history of WCH and its unwavering commitment to the advancement of gender equality in healthcare, exemplified 25 years ago with its establishment of Canada’s first research institute with a sole focus on women’s health and continuing today as WCH and the WCRI remain steadfastly committed to the fight against gender inequalities in healthcare.