The government appears to be getting serious about tackling gender health inequality, with a range of Bills going through Parliament and the publication of the Women’s Health Strategy for England. Now it’s time for employers to step up and do more to tackle entrenched gender health inequality, argues Professor Geeta Nargund.
While the gender pay gap has climbed the ladder of importance on the political agenda in recent years, pay is not the only inequality that has been entrenched in UK workplaces. The UK also has a large gender health gap which, shockingly, is the largest in the G20.
This means that women’s concerns over their health are not given the same attention as men. They are not listened to or given the same quality of treatment as their male counterparts, and this attitude is particularly rife in the workplace.
Women tackle workplace stigma every day. This leaves little wriggle room for speaking out about the support they need when dealing with reproductive health issues, a subject on which senior figures within organisations need to become educated.
A climate of change?
It seems the government has also recognised gender health inequality in the UK as unacceptable and, with the recent publication of the Women’s Health Strategy for England, momentum seems to be building, with a swathe of incoming government Bills taking steps to close the gender health gap in the workplace.
Is this wishful thinking? Perhaps. While the government’s efforts are commendable and the upcoming Bills are long overdue, we must not let momentum plateau and the responsibility does not solely lie at the door of the government and the healthcare profession. All areas of society, particularly employers, must make a change.
Of particular note, Nickie Aiken MP’s Fertility Treatment (Employment Rights) Bill is currently progressing through the House of Commons and aims to provide female workers the right to time off when undergoing IVF treatment. Enshrining women’s health rights in workplace policies is long overdue and it goes without saying that women should not have to rely on their annual holiday allowance to undergo treatment.
Infertility is a disease and treatment is a right, not a holiday or lifestyle choice. Whilst education is necessary to alter the taboo around infertility and associated treatment, this Bill is certainly a step in the right direction.
Alongside Aiken’s Bill, the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Bill, providing protection during or after pregnancy, or after periods of maternity, adoption or shared parental leave and the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill, providing leave and pay for employees with responsibility for children receiving neonatal care, are currently powering through Parliament.
It is about time that commitments to women’s health are being considered in political debate and it must be celebrated that decades of feminist activism could soon be incorporated into employment law.
It is a sad truth that still, today, women are often made to feel they must choose between a career and children, with health issues such as infertility, miscarriage and the menopause remaining obstacles to women’s success.”
However, it falls to employers to foster a culture of transparency and inclusivity that is necessary if women are to feel truly supported when it comes to reproductive issues.
It is a sad truth that still, today, women are often made to feel they must choose between a career and children, with health issues such as infertility, miscarriage and the menopause remaining obstacles to their success.
Women have so far been kept from speaking out through fear of career detriment but, with the pandemic resulting in a revolution in workplace practices and the current talent market running red-hot, progressive and socially responsible workplace policies are a must.
Policies of real change
Whilst this increase in conversation about women’s health is a great starting point, women are still yet to feel the positive headway trickle down to their personal experiences of juggling a career alongside health issues.
Employers must do their part to implement three main strategies to ensure that female employees are sufficiently supported.
Training and education is grossly neglected and must be put in place for HR leaders and line managers. Women will be more encouraged to speak up if they know that those making workplace decisions are educated on the subject and they will not be faced with ignorance.
Besides some decision-makers being unaware of symptoms, many will be unaware of the extent of side effects that treatment can induce, as well as quite how emotionally and time sensitive the issue can be.
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Real policies must also be introduced if companies are to truly champion women’s equality. With many employment contracts grouping fertility treatment with cosmetic surgery, and only providing paid leave if miscarriage occurs after the 24-week mark, many women feel they have to cut down on hours, or leave employment all together as a result of their reproductive health.
Acknowledging reproductive health issues as a serious matter and treatment or suitable support as a necessary, rather than a lifestyle choice, is a critical first step towards true equality in the workplace.
Finally, a truly open and accepting culture is essential in breaking down the workplace stigma that reinforces the glass ceiling for women. Feeling the need to lie about personal circumstances and using annual leave for medical appointments are conditions that may lead women to compromise career progression and opening a culture of conversation is imperative if we are to begin to close the gender health gap.
Health has been at the forefront of the global agenda throughout the past two years and many companies have had to adjust their approach to employee wellbeing and engagement during the pandemic.
The current political activity championing women’s health is long awaited and falls on grateful ears. However, we must not lose momentum to make tangible change and companies themselves must re-evaluate the structure of support that they supply to female workers and consider the robust framework that must be implemented if change is to come about.