Lady high-fiving

Let’s talk about sex – women’s wellbeing and gender in the workplace

“Choose To Challenge.”

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, the IWD’s theme for 2021 asks women – and men – to raise their hand, and call out gender bias and inequality.

The UK is making progress on tackling the widely-publicised gender pay gap. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed it fell to 7.4% from 9% for full-time workers and 15.5% from 17.4% for all workers. The gap also narrowed in the managers, directors and senior officials trouble spot1.

While there’s still a long way to go, it’s a step in the right direction. However, businesses also need to make sure they tackle the equally important gender gap in health and wellbeing.

GriD’s September 2020 survey found female employees have more health and wellbeing concerns than their male colleagues.

GriD’s September 2020 survey found female employees have more health and wellbeing concerns than their male colleagues. A fifth (21%) of women were concerned about stress and anxiety relating to pressures of overwork or an uncertain future compared to 18% of men, finances and debt worried 18% of women vs 14% of men, and long-term chronic illness concerned 14% of women vs 8% of men2.

The reasons may be varied. The greater pay that men still typically enjoy could be one. Another could be that the burden of caring still falls mainly on women.

Carers UK found women are more likely to take on caring roles than men.

Of the 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK, 58%, 3.34 million - are women. They’re also more likely to be ’sandwich’ carers - caring for young children and elderly parents at the same time3. And an incredible 90% of single parent families with dependent children are women4.

Any wellbeing strategy needs to take these needs into account, but only a third of boardroom roles are filled by women and just eight CEOs of FTSE 250 companies were female as of October 20195. This imbalance is also true of start-ups. Only 1-in-3 UK entrepreneurs is female, while in 2017, only 5.6% of UK women ran their own businesses6.

This under representation of women at the highest levels could mean that awareness of some aspects of their wellbeing is low, or even completely disappearing under the radar.

As well as their larger caring responsibilities, health conditions such as endometriosis and even the menopause can have a huge impact on women. Yet many men may be unaware of how debilitating both can be. And with so many more males currently occupying senior positions, supporting employees with these conditions may not make the wellbeing agenda unless championed by women. But this can also be easier said then done. Regardless of which gender sits in the hot seat, there can be a number of reasons beyond just ignorance why these issues are swept under the carpet, including embarrassment, stigma or even a risk of discrimination.

Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), women over the age of 50 are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and most will go through the menopause during their working lives7. In the UK, the average age for a woman to go through menopause is 51, and around 1-in-100 women experience menopause before they’re 40. In addition, 75% of women have symptoms, while 25% could experience serious symptoms8. Just a few of these include:

  • Difficulty sleeping and night sweats
  • Feeling tired and lacking energy
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling anxious and panic attacks
  • Struggling to remember things, concentrate and focus
  • Headaches/migraines9

But without the proper support, the effects of the menopause can lead to women feeling ill, losing confidence in their ability to do their job, stress, anxiety and depression or even leaving their job10. Yet a 2019 survey by Newson Health Menopause and Wellbeing Centre found over 90% of women going through the menopause felt their work had suffered as a result of their symptoms, while 76% said their employer provided no support or training on the subject11, leaving them to suffer in silence.

The lack of support around the menopause has been raised in both Scottish and English parliaments, requesting – among other measures – that menopause guidance is introduced into workplaces12, backed by Diane Danzebrink’s #MakeMenopauseMatter campaign.

Some companies have already introduced a menopause policy, including Google, Channel 4 and the CIPD13, but much more needs to be done.

Women may still feel that ‘female’ issues are a private matter, and/or are uncomfortable discussing them with a male colleague – especially if their manager is a younger man. They may also be worried about being treated unsympathetically or as being thought of as less capable.

While the menopause isn’t specifically protected under the Equality Act, employers should remember that they could still be liable if an employee is treated unfairly because of it.

To ensure women are not stigmatised, the taboos around discussing personal matters need to be swept away, and confidential, candid conversations encouraged.

But talk is cheap if the support or understanding isn’t in place.

Businesses need to take action and provide the practical help and support to make a difference. Written policies on dealing with the menopause can be an invaluable aid for line managers, helping them to effectively manage a situation they may have little personal knowledge or experience of.

Creating subject matter champions or peer-to-peer networks can also encourage dialogue around women’s health issues. Another point of contact in the organisation to discuss these issues, safely and privately, can be a welcome source of support if someone feels unable to talk to their manager.

Training line managers so they’re aware of these conditions and giving them the skills to signpost female employees to practical help is also hugely important. Employers should also be open to implementing workplace adjustments or flexible working, while sharing and circulating knowledge can help break any stigma and diffuse potential embarrassment.

Listen to our own podcast about the menopause, for more information, and helpful hints and tips for employers. And for employers with a Unum policy, our Employee Assistance Programme. LifeWorks, provided by Morneau Shepell, provides access to a managing the menopause toolkit. This includes advice on symptom management, staying healthy through menopause, lifestyles for the better side of 40, and other resources.

Of course, any culture of openness, support and understanding should extend beyond just women and cover the needs of the individual.

Men too suffer from gender-specific conditions, such as prostate or testicular cancers, which can also be difficult to discuss. Organisations also need to take into account the needs of non-binary (those who don’t identify as either men or women) and transgender employees. For example, employers may be completely unaware that a trans man - someone who intends to change or has changed their gender from woman to man - may also go through perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms14.

Stonewall, who campaign for the equality of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people across Britain, point out that trans employees face distinct challenges in the workplace, which can differ significantly from lesbian, gay and bi employees.

These can include physical spaces, such as gendered facilities, to direct discrimination and harassment. Creating a trans-inclusive work environment is beneficial not just to the employee, but to the business itself.

An organisation that enables and supports trans employees to be themselves, ensures it harnesses the skills and experience of a diverse community, breaking down barriers, and building knowledge and awareness among employees who do not identify as trans. It also marks out the business as one that embraces diversity – one worth working for15.

But can employers do more?

As familiarity around gender-fluidity increases, the traditional pronouns are not always fit for purpose. The comedian and actor Eddie Izzard generated considerable media publicity following her appearance on the Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year 2020, where she adopted the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’, adding she wanted to be “based in girl mode from now on.”

In 2017, HSBC introduced nine non-gender-specific titles for their customers to use, including Mx, M, Mre, Ind and Ser, among others, and made it easier for customers to change their gender on their account16. While it’s hoped all customer-facing businesses will quickly recognise the need for change, financial institutions like banks and insurance companies – an everyday staple of most people’s lives – should be leading the way.

HR Magazine’s article with Acas about creating a trans and gender-friendly workplace stressed the importance of staying in tune with a rapidly-changing vocabulary. The piece noted that we embrace new technological terms constantly, so why not language around gender, especially when it can mean a great deal to a person’s identity and self-worth. They added that simply asking someone what pronouns they use is far better than getting it wrong, while mirroring the language used by an individual can also be a powerful way to communicate17.

Recruitment processes should include gender-neutral language on websites and forms, and ensure flexibility in how applicants refer to themselves.

To avoid the discrimination that LGBTQ+ employees can still suffer, organisations should ensure there’s a clear, proactive and accessible diversity and equality policy in place – one that embraces and supports non-binary and trans people, and is transparent in how it’ll be done. Information should be handled sensitively. No one should ever be ‘outed’ either accidentally or deliberately. A decision to come out always lies with the employee and disclosure is only ever with their explicit consent.

Any policy should also cover workplace transition, recruitment, absence, uniforms, use of facilities, and bullying and negative treatment. It should also recognise that there’s no one ‘trans experience’ and be flexible enough to be tailored to the individual’s transitioning journey.

To raise awareness of the issues some employees can face, our Diversity podcast looks at the importance of being included, the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, employees’ experience at home and work, and what businesses can do to offer more support. Listen to our podcast here.

For Unum’s Group Income Protection customers, our On Course ‘Gender, health, work’ webinar is designed to increase understanding about common gender-specific health conditions, encourage communication, and educate line managers on how they can support their staff. See our range of On Course workshops and webinars.

A wider wellbeing strategy that supports every employee will consider the key factors that affect all genders and generations within the workplace. Ensuring employees feel comfortable enough and encouraged to come forward and contribute to its creation will ensure that everyone can be themselves, bring their best selves to work and reach their full potential – to their own benefit and that of the business.
6 The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019

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