Why it’s time to tackle the workplace taboos of miscarriage, menstruation and menopauseby
Several organisations have hit the news recently after reforming their paid leave policies to accommodate miscarriage or stillbirth. This is a step in the right direction – if we’re going to achieve true diversity and inclusion, we need to be open about women's biological and social issues and work to create a more inclusive environment for all.
What connects a commercial motor insurance provider, a London council, a national broadcaster and a digital banking pioneer? At the time of writing, they have all recently been in the news for introducing a new type of paid leave. In the last two months, insurer Zego, Barking and Dagenham Council, fintech company Monzo and Channel 4 have all made headlines for introducing paid leave for miscarriage or stillbirth.
Companies that prepare for inclusivity will not only openly and clearly communicate policies but will also be proactively changing the narrative around issues like miscarriage, the menopause and periods.
While they should be applauded for providing support to grieving parents and their families, it is the fact that these steps have been newsworthy that is shocking. At present, in the UK a woman suffering miscarriage before the end of the 24th week of pregnancy is offered a GP note for statutory sick leave to deal with the loss but does not qualify for bereavement leave. For stillborn children after the 24th week, the mother is entitled to maternity leave and associated pay. The rules are convoluted and confusing for businesses to understand, with the added cultural microaggression that this is an illness and a ‘woman’s issue’, not a ‘parental issue’.
Despite advances in medicine, approximately one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage and one in 250 births are stillborn. It is a tragedy that women, their partners and their families have to manage and, as we’ve seen, one they often face without the support of their employer.
Miscarriage isn’t the only workplace taboo that needs to be tackled. For too long, the topic of menopause has been ignored or overlooked by businesses – despite the fact that nearly half the population experiences it. More often than not, it occurs at a critical juncture in women’s careers, with the majority experiencing menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, also the period in which they are reaching top leadership positions. Despite this, businesses continually struggle to support experienced female workers as they go through a biological change.
The issue of periods is another topic that can cause consternation and discrimination – indeed, one study found that one in ten employees had directly faced negative comments about their period while at work, with 60% saying they feel unable to discuss menstruation at all with their colleagues or managers.
A hostile environment for women
We are at a point in time when whatever equity we have secured in the workplace is under threat, with the pandemic regularly cited as eroding many of the hard-fought gains of the past few years. The business case could not be clearer – in the UK, the south west topped regional tables for female labour force participation, while one report stated that the country could gain nearly £50 billion a year if the rest of the country could match that of the South West. Despite this, one in four women are considering downgrading their career or leaving the workforce, with mothers most likely to do so.
There are many reasons for this, but the underlying theme is of workplaces that cannot or will not support the specific needs of women and their families. Never has the noise around diversity, equity and inclusion been as loud, but those companies that claim to put DEI at the heart of their culture while failing to acknowledge the needs of employees will be found out. The pandemic has made many reassess their values – when it comes to work, that means interrogating whether their employer is truly supportive of their individual needs. Businesses that ignore these issues or do the bare minimum run the risk of losing vital staff at a critical moment.
To prevent that, employers need to be proactive in removing these workplace taboos and tackling the underlying culture that propagates them. To do that, they first need to acknowledge that every employee will need specific, specialist support.
Going the extra mile
Companies that prepare for inclusivity will not only openly and clearly communicate policies but will also be proactively changing the narrative around issues like miscarriage, the menopause and periods. They will go beyond what is legally required and expected to ensure that every member of their team feels included and supported. Not only will this instil a sense of trust within employees, but it will also nurture loyalty, especially if companies offer additional support to parents, whether that’s monetary or wellbeing-led.
That is how we change the culture – by those in power standing up and advocating for a kinder, more compassionate workplace, one that makes it clear that everyone is extremely welcome and fundamentally valued.
Interested in this topic? Read Why Covid-19 is a threat to women's wellbeing at work.