Ann Summers: ‘We’re not intimidated at all by the biological occurrences that happen to a woman; we embrace them’


Supporting Women’s Health in the Workplace is a key theme at The Watercooler Event this week and Ann Summers’ Make A Difference Awards entry stood out in this category due to the huge strides it’s made in designing jobs, and a workplace in general, that are truly female friendly.

The lingerie and sex toys retailer was nominated in this category (Women’s Health) as well as Best Retailer, and was awarded a highly commended in both.

Keeping Jacqueline Gold’s legacy going

The phenomenally inspirational leader at Ann Summers – Jacqueline Gold CBE – may have sadly passed away in March but her sister and CEO of Ann Summers, Vanessa Gold, and Managing Director Maria Hollins are determined that her legacy lives on, especially when it comes to employee wellbeing and female empowerment, which she felt so passionate about.

As Elaine Cooney, Wellbeing & Diversity manager at Ann Summers says, we live in a society where women have been expected to “crack on”, regardless of whether their health and happiness at work were impacted by natural female occurrences, like periods, hormonal changes after giving birth and the menopause.

Challenging taboos

But Ann Summers has actively challenged these taboos around women’s health and created a culture where it’s normal to speak to employees about these subjects, and ask them how they would like to be treated.

“It’s never suited business for women to show ‘weakness’,” says Cooney. “No businesses were saying ‘it’s perfectly fine for you to feel not OK, or not well’. But with 80% of our workforce identifying as women, Jacqueline spearheaded the movement in our company around really looking after women in business. She always used to talk about empowering women in the boardroom and the bedroom.”

Talking openly about women’s biology at work

As a result, Ann Summers has taken a women’s lifecycle into careful consideration when both designing jobs, writing policy and cultivating culture. Unafraid to disclose she’s menopausal herself, Cooney knows first-hand that the support in place for her makes her feel “so much better about it and allows me to be so much more productive”.

This refusal to be unafraid to discuss these potentially tricky, or historically embarrassing and career-damaging, topics openly is something that she’s been inspired to do by watching Gold (Jacqueline) in operation over the years:

“I definitely feel that we’re not intimidated at all by all the things that happen to a woman. We don’t see them in a negative way. We see it as: ‘OK, that’s what we go through, so how can we support women?’ We’ve got great benefits from doing that. Because of Jacqueline, we’re not scared to face difficult issues.”

No topic off limits from transwomen to cancer

It means that, unlike many organisations, Ann Summers has not been afraid to join the conversation about transwomen and their rights at work, either, keen to give voice to diverse experiences across the company.

Gold was also very open about her experiences of living and working with cancer, which is why this is another topic that is not taboo but is actively embraced in terms of supporting colleagues in the workplace.

Indeed, she often used her own lived-experiences to inform policy in the workplace and drive positive change. For instance, her own fertility struggles, which she was always open about.

Baby loss

“If you lose a baby, that’s difficult,” says Cooney “We understand that you might not want to take holiday to process it. But you might want time off. You might want to talk about it, or you might not. And the policy is about us acknowledging that.”

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This policy was relaunched last year alongside several others – the fertility support policy, domestic abuse policy and menopause support policy. “We wanted to kickstart a more meaningful approach to supporting women and people in our business,” says Cooney.

Policies to educate, not stipulate

A key theme common to all policies was the fact they were written predominantly as education tools, rather than rigid stipulations about how a situation ‘must’ be dealt with. The idea was that any line manager could read a policy and then feel empowered to have a conversation with a colleague, confident about what Ann Summers could offer, or signpost to. Each policy aims to outline the potential challenges of each particular scenario emotionally, physically and financially.

“The reason we wrote them like that is so that any manager could pick a policy up and know what they could offer to someone who had disclosed to them. They also act as training because they give you so much information rather than being a step by step guide of what you do when someone comes to you. They’re much more than that,” says Cooney.

Policies can’t exist in isolation

The policies also strive to be as inclusive as possible. For example, partners of those undergoing fertility treatment are also entitled to paid time off to attend fertility treatments. Policies also contain questions for managers to think about like, in this case concerning fertility treatment – is there any medication that employees need to administer at work? Do they need a space to do this? Do they need medication kept somewhere safe?

“It’s thinking really holistically about the journey for the employee and their partner,” she says.

Policies don’t exist in isolation, either. They feed into the company’s training platform, Thrive, where content relevant to the topics is regularly uploaded. This platform has high engagement, which Ann Summers projects and business communications manager Emma Lussier-Foy puts down to the fact that it’s highly interactive and gamified, with users getting points for liking and sharing content.

The power of listening

More generally, she attributes high engagement across with the board with employees because “they are excited to work for a brand that is actually listening”.

This interview took place the day after Gold’s funeral, a celebration of life where one of the phrases repeatedly used about her was that she left this world in a better place than she found it.

Now, her sister Vanessa and the entire Ann Summers family continue to shape the long-term strategy for the brand, ensuring that their team’s well-being, in particular women’s health, remain at the heart of everything they do

New policies around women’s health that Ann Summers introduced last year:

  • Fertility support policy – paid time off to attend medical appointments, as well as offering support in the workplace
  • Domestic abuse policy – this offers colleagues in this situation paid time off if they need it, education for line managers and lots of supportive options to help
  • Pregnancy loss policy – this allows colleagues paid time off to recover from a pregnancy loss, along with other supportive measures while back in the workplace
  • Menopause support policy – this allows any person experiencing symptoms of the menopause reasonable adjustments to agree with their line manager to support them when they need it.

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