The vital role of (male) leadership in promoting Women’s Health from endometriosis to the menopause

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Helen Tomlinson, the Government’s Menopause Employment Champion, called on employers to get behind the conversation about Women’s Health. She was speaking on a panel on this topic at The Watercooler Event.

She emphasised that, while it’s great getting employee resource groups (ERGs) and forums involved in the conversation, “it can only drive the conversation so far”.

What really makes the crucial difference is leadership involvement

“Getting leadership involved makes a real significant change in organisations in any of the topics that we’re talking about [relating to Women’s Health from endometriosis to the menopause].”

Tomlinson gave an example from her ‘day job’ where she is Head of Talent (UK & Ireland) at The Adecco Group. 

To mark the launch of Adecco’s menopause policy, Tomlinson took part in a podcast with two other senior leaders talking really honestly about their menopause symptoms. Between the three of them, they managed to cover a large percentage of possible symptoms spanning cognitive like brain fog, psychological like anxiety and physical like the more famous flushes.

Not an easy conversation to have

“It wasn’t a conversation I found easy to start with,” she said. “One of my symptoms was heavy and erratic menstrual periods. 44% of women suffer with this. So even me, just putting my experience out there, allowed other people to come forward and share their lived experience and that they’re struggling.”

While she recognises that being this open and honest might not be for all leaders, it can be extremely effective in raising the profile of a topic and kickstarting the conversation, as well as adding gravitas to it. 

For her, allyship is crucial when it comes to raising awareness of topics like menopause and other women’s health conditions: “Encouraging people to open up and have that conversation and share their lived experience creates culture in an organisation”.

Leadership must listen

Fellow panellist Cathy Earnshaw-Balding, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, GXO, agreed that real cultural change “starts with the leadership team and getting them on board and making them listen”.

She also stresses that – just because it’s Women’s Health that is being talked about – the leaders coming forward to speak about it shouldn’t all be female. In fact, it’s extremely powerful to have men talking about their perspective and learnings from their partners’, or sisters’, or daughters’ or mums’ experiences.

“So it’s in mens’ interests, whether they like it or not, to get on board with this,” said Earnshaw-Balding. “And they also have colleagues and direct reports that they need to bring on board on this journey with them. They can’t bury their heads in the sand anymore.”

Don’t over-rely on policy

Another thing that leaders can’t afford to do when it comes to women’s health is fall back on just trotting out the policy line. As Earnshaw-Balding said “policy can only go so far” and can sometimes be “a little bit black and white”.

Leaders in particular need to realise that policy won’t “give you all the answers”, in Earnshaw-Balding’s words. With this area of health, women’s experiences are so individual and have to be treated as such; there is no ‘one size fits all’ that falls neatly into a policy or presentation. For instance, there is no uniformity around how much time people may need off for the same condition or operation.

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Another aspect of good leadership when it comes to handling Women’s Health at work is understanding that “it’s not all down to HR”. The best leaders in this space are those who are committed to understanding and helping the individual through their experience, with compassion and empathy. 

Leaders need the human touch

As Earnshaw-Balding says, HR is obviously there to “support and actively contribute and ensure rules and processes are followed”, but the human touch – which can make all the difference – is really down to the line manager.

In addition to calling on employers to get the conversation going, Tomlinson is also keen for leaders to share what they’ve learnt in terms of best practice, guidance and education to contribute to the free-to-access Menopause in the Workplace Resources Hub

“This is all about large organisations coming together and taking away that competitive element and doing the right thing for women everywhere,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of great practices going on in large organisations but it’s important that we make sure we overlay that into smaller organisations too.”

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