More than “women’s issues”: why aren’t we focusing on reproductive and gynaecological health?

Women’s reproductive systems and gynaecology can have a considerable, and in some cases debilitating effect on their health. 51% of the UK population may, at some stage in their adult life, experience a health problem that is related to their reproductive systems and gynaecology, and every woman will undergo the period of changes that comprise the menopause. These conditions can cause pain, fatigue, and have a considerable impact upon a woman’s mental health. And, accordingly, these health problems impact upon other areas of women’s lives, including work.

But we hear very little discussion of these problems. Even today, in 2017, when female emancipation and equality is arguably the highest it’s ever been, these issues are ignored. Women make up 46% of the labour force, with rates of employment the highest they have ever been for those with children (both in partnerships and solely), and more women than men now gain university degrees. But even in this era of female progression, discussion of the unique health issues relating to their sex are still shunned, quieted, taboo.

Our paper takes four elements of reproductive and gynaecological health – endometriosis, infertility, pregnancy with a pre-existing condition, and the menopause – and examines the impact they can have on women’s working lives. We provide recommendations surrounding what employers can do to keep these women in work, or to make it easier for them to gain it. As with other conditions, we found that opportunities for flexible and home working – allowing women to manage their symptoms at work – were the most important adjustments one could make.

But overwhelmingly what this paper unearths is the low amount of attention given to understanding and discussing the impact of these conditions. In the last few years, Parliamentary committees have begun to examine endometriosis, and awareness of menopause as a work issue has increased, but the starting base is very low. Our core recommendations, therefore, focus on the need for increased awareness- from employers and line managers, but also from healthcare professionals, policy makers and government services, and the public.

For too long female-related health conditions have been dismissed simply as “women’s issues” or “part of the deal”. This underplays the considerable effect these reproductive and gynaecological conditions can have on the lives, and the work, of the half the population. We hope our paper will play a role in changing these attitudes, and facilitate policymakers’ thinking- it’s time these issues were given parity of esteem with other health conditions.

More than “women’s issues” is part of a new series on Gender, Sex, Health and Work, for more information see our  paper outlining the series and view the infographic below.