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Developing policies for women's health at work
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Women at work: Isn't it time to close the gender health gap?

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The fight for women's health rights in the workplace is making inroads, but there is much more that employers can do, writes Professor Geeta Nargund, ahead of International Women's Day (8th March 2022).

7th Mar 2022
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While leaps and bounds have been made in efforts to achieve gender equality, women’s health remains far behind the curve. Centuries of gender inequality, manifesting in our healthcare systems, has created a gender health gap. A lack of adequate women in clinical trials and scientific research, and the stigmatisation of women’s health has led to years of inequality in women’s healthcare. 

The urgent need for progressive policies

The Government’s recent Vision for Women’s Health Strategy seeks to address this by resetting the dial on attitudes towards women’s health. A key pillar of the strategy highlights the impact of the gender health gap on the workplace and draws on more than 100,000 first-hand experiences from women of all ages. Many reported negative impacts on their stress levels and productivity while at work as a result of reproductive health challenges.

Only 4% of employers provide appropriate training for HR directors or line managers on fertility treatment

Covid-19 has accelerated change in approaches to employee wellbeing and workplace culture, with health suddenly a core of HR policy. On top of flexible working options, prospective employees are increasingly valuing non-remunerative benefits within their employment packages such as focus on wellbeing. Adopting progressive HR policy that addresses diversity and inclusion (D&I), and physical and mental health, amongst other key initiatives, is the only option for employers to keep up in the war for talent.

A stark gender health gap

Unsurprisingly, renewed attention on women’s health inequality, coupled with drastic progress in recentring employee wellbeing in the workplace has led to a flurry of employers considering how their workplace can be made a better place for women facing health and wellbeing challenges. Before identifying the necessary policy and support needed in the workplace, we wanted to hear first-hand experiences of women facing reproductive health challenges, specifically, fertility treatment; pregnancy loss; and menopause in the workplace.

The survey, conducted in partnership with Cityparents, revealed a stark gap in workplace policy on reproductive health. Nearly half of employers (48%) had no official policy to support employees undergoing IVF treatment, despite the fact that one in six couples now require the help of a fertility expert to conceive. Furthermore, only 4% of employers provide appropriate training for HR directors or line managers on fertility treatment, with one respondent describing their experience of fertility treatment as “incredibly painful and lonely” as a result of their company having no policy in place.

It is also often neglected that fertility treatment is the only option for same-sex couples or single parents to conceive. No workplace policy therefore denies these individuals the choice that everyone should have a right to: starting a family in the knowledge that they can maintain financial stability and career security.

For those facing miscarriage, only 12% of employees surveyed were allowed time off before it becomes a legal right at 24 weeks; with one in five pregnancies ending in miscarriage, providing paid leave at any gestation is essential in supporting women through pregnancy loss. 

When it comes to the menopause, over 60% of women said they would feel uncomfortable talking to a line manager if menopausal symptoms were impacting their performance at work, and almost 90% of employers didn’t provide any sort of menopause policy – shocking when a study in 2019 found 14 million workdays were lost to the UK each year due to menopause symptoms.

Many women reported feeling ashamed or scared of sharing details of the challenges they were facing with their line managers

Creating supportive workplace cultures

A compelling host of individuals and organisations have already made a massive impact in this space, with a number of large firms adopting progressive approaches towards reproductive health. One Magic Circle law firm recently announced an offering of £44,500 for egg freezing, IVF and surrogacy to their staff; law firm Burgess Mee recently hired Britain’s first ever 'Fertility Officer' as a point of contact for employees looking to start a family; and Monzo has introduced ten days’ compassionate leave for pregnancy loss for all employees, whether affected directly or indirectly.

These examples point to three critical strategies employers can use to help close the gender health gap – provision of services; training and education; and policy. The provision, or subsidisation, of fertility treatments may be an option reserved for larger firms, however, funding provision where possible makes a critical difference in lifting the extreme financial burden of fertility treatment. 

Secondly, training for HR directors and line managers to support and broaden their understanding of the impact of fertility treatment, miscarriage and menopause on both physical and mental health and wellbeing for employees is critical in providing reasonable adjustment options and fostering a culture of transparency. Many women reported feeling ashamed or scared of sharing details of the challenges they were facing with their line managers, and either having a port of call in the form of a ‘fertility officer’, or offering firmwide training days and sessions on these issues, can further progress towards destigmatising women’s health.

Forming the policies

Finally, tangible policy that acknowledges the impact of reproductive health will ensure that staff don’t feel that their reproductive choice is a detriment to their career. Providing compassionate leave for miscarriage prior to the 24-week mark is a great place to start, while not a statutory right, many firms are beginning to adopt such policy. Fertility treatment, however, is less acknowledged with no statutory rights at all for employees undergoing fertility treatment, with many having to use annual leave, or take a cut in hours/pay as a result of undergoing treatment.

Opening the conversation, resetting the dial on workplace policy and recentering employee wellbeing are all vital steps towards closing the gender health gap

The language used around fertility treatment in policymaking is also pivotal; a shocking number of employment contracts group fertility treatment appointments with cosmetic surgery appointments, implying that fertility treatment is a lifestyle choice, as opposed to a medical need for couples facing infertility, same-sex couples or single parents wanting to start a family.

While progress is being made, and HR directors and employers across the country are tuning into critical debates to ensure that women’s health doesn’t act as a detriment to their success, there is still work to be done. Opening the conversation, resetting the dial on workplace policy and recentering employee wellbeing are all vital steps towards closing the gender health gap.

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