Women, Work & Health in the 21st century

The Work Foundation has just released the first of a new series of reports on Gender, Sex, Health and Work, entitled “More than ‘Women’s Issues’: Women’s Reproductive and Gynaecological Health and Work”.

When I first glanced at the title, I was slightly shocked to realise I was having an involuntary nose-wrinkle. And I think this might be getting to the heart of the problem – our tendency to distance ourselves from, and to find slightly distasteful, those health issues that are particular to women.

Well, women now make up 47% of the workforce in the UK, so it is important for us to deal with the reality that we have not, up ‘til now, focused on: the impact of a number of female-specific health issues on women’s participation in the workplace.

By focusing on 4 major issues: endometriosis, infertility, pregnancy, and menopause, their paper sheds light on these less-talked-about factors of female reproductive and gynaecological health which present challenges to working.

Every woman of working age will experience some health related, physical and/or psychological, implications of being a woman. Many symptoms will not be visible to others, and may be accompanied by emotional stress, poorer psychological health, fatigue and pain, all of which are known to have considerable negative implications for work.

Whether we are aware of it or not, our colleagues and our clients have almost certainly encountered these challenges in the workplace. In large part this invisibility is cultural – both in and out of the workplace.

As this report points out, in addition to wrapping such issues in secrecy and shame, we are apt to diminish or dismiss the largely invisible symptoms associated with reproductive and gynaecological health, leaving women with the ‘double whammy’ of having to disclose embarrassing personal details to potentially unsympathetic management, and then not being believed regarding their severity or impact.

So this report is a very timely call for greater awareness and more access to services, both in the workplace and in the health services.

As for my initial reaction? A poor showing for a feminist, you might say and you would be right. But for the past half century, women have fought for equal footing in the workplace, and could not call out these problems which would potentially reveal them as indeed the weaker sex. I hope that time is coming to an end, and we will no longer have to deny the health issues of being a woman, in order to have a seat at the table.