The gender pay gap and the under representation of women in senior management positions has been widely reported in recent years. However, there’s another gender gap that still largely moves under the radar – health and wellbeing.
The percentage of women aged between 16 and 64 who are employed is currently 71.8%1. – the highest figure since records began back in 1971.
By comparison, the rate for men of this age group is 80.3%2, making the gap between employment rates for men and women just 8.5%. This is a significant reduction compared to 1971, when the employment rate for working women was just 53%3. This marks a radical shift in the make-up of the UK workforce in just 50 years, closing the gender gap in the workforce.
Despite these changes, many workplaces are still not set up to sufficiently support the specific needs of women, particularly around their health. There is little understanding or consideration for conditions like endometriosis, fibroids or even the menopause, and how they may affect women’s ability to perform to their full potential. Why is this?
Business leadership in the UK is still dominated by men
The answer may be in some way explained when exploring who the senior business leaders are in the UK today. While the number of women in the workforce as a whole has grown massively, there is still a huge imbalance when looking at who makes it to the top. Just 1-in-5 businesses in this country is run by women4.
In recent years, there has been a concerted effort, supported by government, to ensure women are appointed to senior roles. While the FTSE100 is on target for women to make up at least a third of boards by the end of 2020, the picture in smaller businesses isn’t as positive. Only 25 women are in chair roles in the FTSE3505. With so few women in the top positions, it’s no wonder that female health issues fail to make it on to the agenda.
This male domination continues in new business and start-ups too, where there are twice as many male entrepreneurs as female6. This is despite the huge and very visible advances made by women over the past few decades. These are the companies of the future and If women remain underrepresented at the top in these organisations, creating workplaces that are sympathetic to women’s health issues are in danger of still being a long way off.
Women’s health remains a taboo in the workplace
Workplace wellbeing has advanced considerably in the last decade. According to research from REBA, almost 70% of employers now have a wellbeing strategy in place7. This represents a rapid rise over the last few years - around 30% claimed to have one in REBA's 2016 survey. Employers are more committed than ever to supporting the health of their employees.
There has been a concentrated focus on tackling poor mental health and encouraging employees to talk about their issues, rather than suffer in silence. Initiatives like Time to Talk Day, Mental Health Awareness Day and Stress Awareness Month have been embraced by employers.
While there is still a significant mountain to climb when it comes to tackling work-related mental health issues, it’s no longer brushed under the carpet. More than half of employees now feel comfortable discussing mental health issues in the workplace8.
The same can’t be said about women’s health issues, particularly gynaecological conditions or even just the realities of a woman’s monthly cycle.
From an early age, girls are conditioned to talk about their periods in hushed tones and hide their sanitary products. 1-in-5 women aged 14 to 21 have been bullied about their periods9, making them feel unable to raise the issue. Boys and young men are often excluded from the conversation and told it’s a “female issue” that doesn’t concern them.
This leads to ignorance and an aversion to talk about the subject which continues into adulthood and into the workplace. Men aren’t unaware of the issue – they just don’t know how to address it. Until this situation changes, women’s health will remain a taboo subject.
Green shoots of change
There have been a few signs over the past year that things are beginning to change. In 2019, Channel 4 launched a dedicated menopause policy10, which received widespread media coverage. And the CIPD created their “Let’s talk menopause” initiative, encouraging business to break the stigma.
This new focus has been fuelled by the growing number of women working into their 50s and beyond. They are the fastest growing segment of the workforce and there are now five million working women aged between 45 and 6011. Clearly, employers are beginning to realise the value of these employees and want to retain their skills, experience and knowledge in the workplace.
While the dial is beginning to shift, there’s still a long way to go. A survey by Newson Health found a staggering 94% of women going through the menopause said they felt their work had suffered as a result of their symptoms12. More than a third of the women surveyed said their employer provided no support or training around the subject, leaving them to suffer in silence.
Endometriosis is a condition that affects around 1-in-10 women of reproductive age13. It’s a debilitating condition that causes painful and heavy periods, chronic pain and extreme fatigue, plus problems with infertility. It takes on average between seven and 12 years to diagnose, and can have a huge impact on women’s careers and ability to perform to their full potential. It also costs the UK economy an estimated £8.2 billion a year14.
On a more positive note, endometriosis in the workplace was discussed for the first time in parliament at the end of last year15, signalling that its effects are at last being recognised at the highest level. Could the fact that there are now a record number of women MPs (220), who are able to champion these types of causes, be making the difference?
What can employers do to close the gender gap on wellbeing?
The first step to creating a wellbeing strategy that supports every employee is to look at the full picture. It needs to consider the key factors that affect all genders and generations within the workplace. A critical part of creating this strategy is ensuring employees have a voice, and feel comfortable and encouraged to come forward and feed into it.
Awareness is the first rung on the ladder that leads to change. The more women’s issues are discussed, the more they’ll be understood and acknowledged.
While talking is a good place to start, businesses also need to take action and provide practical help and support that will 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 no personal knowledge or experience of.
For example, it can be extremely difficult for a young male manager to have the confidence to talk to an older female employee about any gynaecological issues she is having. A suitable policy, along with information on additional help, can make the subject far easier to broach.
Creating peer-to-peer networks or subject-matter champions, can also help encourage dialogue around women’s health issues. It can be incredibly intimidating for an employee to approach their manager about something so personal. Having an available point of contact with the organisation to discuss these issues in a safe and confidential manner can provide a valuable outlet and facilitate help being sought.
Training line managers so they are aware of these conditions and can signpost female employees to practical help, such as reasonable adjustments, changes in working conditions or flexible working, is also hugely important. Sharing and circulating knowledge can also help break the stigma and diffuse potential embarrassment.
All of this can help build businesses where everyone feels comfortable. able to ask for help if they are suffering, and find the support that enables them to bring their best selves to work. Closing the gap on gender wellbeing will help women, and ultimately UK businesses, reach their full potential.