There’s a wealth of research into brain injuries but the majority focuses on male brains, the male experience and is written by men. Specialist injury compensation lawyers RWK Goodman spoke to experts to find out what we are missing when we don’t consider women.
The research also found out that men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, but when a woman is involved in a similar incident she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than her male counterpart.
Historically, the “symptoms” of women who experienced partner violence were largely considered to be the result of their psychological trauma, rather than considering the possibility of brain injury.
The impact of repeated head injury on male rugby players has been the subject of much media attention in recent months and years, but the different impact upon women in sport has not been so widely publicised. Women are at twice the risk of concussion than men when playing football.
In her book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez writes about how men are more likely to be involved in a car crash, but that when a woman is involved in a similar incident she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured than her male counterpart. The reason for this is that the type of crash test dummies used when testing the safety of a vehicle is modelled after men. Hope Kent, a PhD researcher at Exeter University and representative of Pink Concussions in the UK, notes that this is what happens when men are silently assumed as the norm, and women are simply not considered. She said: “It is assumed that because a man is safe, we can make that [crash test dummy] smaller and a woman is just a mini man, and that is going to be safe for the woman as well which might not be the case.”
Recognising the role of gender in sports injuries
The phenomenon of leaving women out of the equation can also be observed in sports. The impact of repeated head injuries on male rugby players has been the subject of much media attention recently, but the different impact on women has not been so widely publicised. Dr Willie Stewart is a consultant neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow and a leading expert in brain injury in sports, and he has spoken to UK Parliament about women being at twice the risk of concussion than men when playing football.
Dr Stewart notes that “we should be treating it on the highest risk group and treating everybody as if they were a female athlete because that is the safest way to manage rather than treating everybody as if they were a male athlete.”
Women’s experience of brain injuries in the criminal justice system
Hope’s continuing research into the impact of someone’s gender on their experience of brain injury is an area that has only recently come to the forefront of the field. In a study at Drake Hall Prison that lasted from 2016 to 2018, The Disabilities Trust found that 64% of women screened had a history of brain injury and 62% of those sustained the brain injury as a result of domestic violence. Historically, the “symptoms” of women who experienced partner violence were largely considered to be the result of their psychological trauma, rather than considering the possibility of brain injury. Brain injury was not considered as an impact of violence, and these women were diagnosed with mental health issues.
As Hope has also found in her research, brain injury can often lead people down a path where at present there are no safety nets, “If you are a young person with a brain injury there are a million possibilities. And if people don’t recognise that is what is going on for you; if the magistrate doesn’t know that and the judges don’t know, and your advocates don’t know, then it is really hard to explain some of that impulsive behaviour that might come about as a result of a brain injury”.
Glimmers of hope
The prison and rehabilitation systems are not adequately equipped to deal with these complex issues. Fortunately, however, there is work being done to improve this. When speaking to Hope she explained that organisations like the Disabilities Trust are helping to introduce link workers for those leaving the prison system. These are “key workers who are specially trained in brain injury and in the small simple modifications that can make the world different for these women”. So as with all areas of brain injury research right now, there are glimmers of hope and raising awareness of the issues has been a key spark.
There is always more to do, but the good news is that there are plenty of experts and organisations advocating for an increased understanding of people’s different experiences of brain injury. Organisations like Pink Concussions are leading the way in looking at gender-responsive and evidence-based strategies for the identification, management and support of women and girls with brain injuries.
Charlotte Web, a specialist brain injury associate from RWK Goodman, said: “It’s vital that we include sex and gender in research to truly understand brain injury. Everyone who sustains a brain injury deserves to be treated as an individual with consideration to their background and circumstances.”
Charlotte Web is an associate in RWK Goodman’s Personal Injury team, specialising in brain and spinal injuries.