Article by Francesca Steyn, Director of Women’s Health Services at Peppy
This International Women’s Day, let’s acknowledge that while equality is essential, first we need to level the playing field.
With this year’s theme for International Women’s Day of #EmbraceEquity, there’s no doubt that focusing on the topic of gender equity in the workplace couldn’t have come at a better time. Equal opportunities for both genders simply aren’t enough when women have so much to contend with, and this is having a serious impact on women’s careers. New research conducted by Peppy in partnership with the Reward and Employees Benefits Association (REBA) has found that 93% of businesses still haven’t cracked being able to attract and retain female talent throughout their organisations.
From pregnancy, fertility, and parenthood issues to gynaecological and hormone-related problems, a whole menu of health and life issues impacts women’s workplace wellbeing. Without effective support, these issues can thwart or even devastate careers. For example, according to the Menopause and the Workplace report by the Fawcett Society and Channel 4, 10% of women had left their job because of symptoms of the menopause. Meanwhile, McKinsey/LeanIn’s study Women in the Workplace 2022 showed that in the previous year, 29% of women considered reducing their hours, taking an easier job, or leaving the workforce altogether.
The difference between equity and equality
What’s become crystal clear is that equal opportunities for both genders simply aren’t enough. Equality means everyone is given the same resources or opportunities, whereas equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. Simply put, equity helps even the playing field so everyone can thrive.
This means that, to achieve equity, employers should be supporting women differently. Acknowledging the different challenges and pressures placed upon women during their lives is key to understanding the support they need in the workplace in order to thrive. But it’s also important to be aware that equality is very far from women’s reality. In 2022, the United Kingdom ranked 22nd on the global gender gap index, placing it behind other European countries such as France, Germany, and Ireland. This index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, education, and health-based criteria.
Recognising women’s unique challenges
The first step to achieving equity is to recognise biological differences, and the specific health and wellbeing concerns women contend with. There are specific health issues relating to the reproductive cycle, from widespread ones like menstrual pain, PMS and menopause, to conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. Women’s health issues can be quite complex and often go undiagnosed. Endometriosis, for example, takes on average eight years to be diagnosed.
For women who want to start or add to a family, the issues around pregnancy and becoming a parent can have a huge negative impact on their careers. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, and research by Imperial College London found that a month on from experiencing miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, nearly a third of women suffer from post-traumatic stress.
Mental health problems in the perinatal period are very common, affecting up to 20% of women who have given birth. And in the case of women undergoing fertility treatment to start or add to their family, 85% of people feel this has a negative impact on their work and 19% have to reduce hours or leave the workplace altogether.
What’s more, women are often penalised when they choose to have a child which can affect them as they attempt to climb the career ladder. In general, the motherhood penalty assumes that mothers cannot maintain the same professional footing as their male colleagues or women who don’t have children. It’s the reason women’s careers tend to plateau—and even backslide—at their mid-career point. A study conducted by University College London found that women earn almost half (45 percent) of what their salary would have been without having children, in the first six years after giving birth. And caring responsibilities for family members usually tend to fall on women, which can seriously impact on their career.
Our research shows that 80% of employers still do not have a menopause policy in place – and women’s health is still taboo, with things like ‘period pains’ not traditionally being talked about in the workplace. Around 80% of women experience period pain, while up to 75 percent of menstruating women experience PMS, which can have a serious impact on emotions.
The advantages of effective support
When specialist, flexible support is put in place for their health issues it helps women to flourish – as well as helping companies recruit and retain them. There should be policies in place for menopause and for devastating events like miscarriage. Companies introducing period policies contribute to better employee retention, improved working relations and increased productivity.
Providing specialist workplace benefits that support the health and wellbeing of your female employees can have a positive impact on productivity, absenteeism, and retention. We know that if women are not supported at work around life issues like menopause and pregnancy, they may just leave. And it’s surely better to support great employees, rather than go to the expense and trouble of replacing them.
What good support looks like in practice
Gender-specific and accessible
For employee benefits to be truly effective, they need to be gender-specific and communicated in the right way, with clear signposting. Accessibility outside of working hours, discretion, and confidentiality are essential, with a dedicated means of accessing information, like the Peppy app.
Flexible working arrangements can be helpful to support female employees experiencing challenging symptoms or circumstances such as family caring responsibilities. Allowing flexible working can help employees to manage these issues whilst maintaining productivity at work.
Create a community for women to start important conversations. When managers and leaders model flexible work practices, are open about their own well-being practices and mental health and set boundaries for work/life balance, women feel more encouraged to do so too.
Allowing time for wellbeing activities during the workday can help to increase employee engagement and productivity. Encourage employees to take breaks from their computers in order to focus on their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. stress-reduction activities like walking, meditation, or yoga.
About the author
Francesca Steyn is the Director of Fertility and Women’s Health services at Peppy and Chair of the Royal College of Nursing Fertility Nurses Forum. She has over 17 years experience as a fertility nurse specialist, both in the NHS and private sectors and has published Department of Health guidance on surrogacy best practice and care in surrogate births.
She was awarded surrogacy professional of the year in both 2018 and 2019 at the National Surrogacy Awards and is also a member of the legislative reform advisory group, appointed by the HFEA to modernise the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.