3 landmark reports on women leaders and women’s health

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Ahead of this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March) a number of reports have been released. Here, I’ve picked out key insights from three, looking at the growth of women’s representation at the top of British business, actions needed to close the gender health gap in the UK and what businesses can do to provide personalised period care.

Continuing growth in women’s representation at the top of British business

We’ll start with the good news. At the end of year three of its five-year term, the FTSE Women Leaders Review – the independent business-led initiative, backed by the Government and sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group and KPMG – has reported steady progress in the number of women at the top of British business.

The initiative is focused on increasing women’s representation on the Boards and Leadership Teams of the FTSE 350 and the UK’s 50 biggest companies. Adopting a voluntary approach, it sets recommendations for Britain’s biggest companies to improve the representation of women on their boards and leadership teams.

Now, just over half of FTSE 350 companies (56%) have achieved or are well on their way to achieving gender balance, with women now holding 35% of all Leadership roles in FTSE 350 companies.

However, the appointment rate of women in leadership roles still leans in favour of men. To meet the Review’s target of 40% Women in Leadership as well as on Boards by the end of 2025 deadline, over the next two years, almost every other appointment will need to go to a woman. You can read the full report here.

UK loses 150 million working days due to lack of workplace support for women’s health

Meanwhile, the gender health gap in the UK is cavernous. Currently the UK has the largest female health gap among G20 countries and the 12th largest globally.

In a bid to break down the barriers that lead to poorer health outcomes for women in the workplace, private healthcare provider Benenden Health, in partnership with the Fawcett Society (the UK’s leading charity for gender equality and women’s rights) and Cherry Healey, have launched a new campaign.

Their research shows that four in ten women (42%) have heard derogatory comments about a female employee’s health in the workplace and 42% of women are uncomfortable discussing their health issues with their manager. Furthermore, 70% of female employees have found it challenging dealing with periods at work, 62% have struggled with pregnancy in the workplace and 64% have faced challenges when experiencing the menopause.

Interestingly, and reinforcing the need for more women in leadership positions, the percentage of women comfortable discussing health issues increases to 96% when the manager is also female.

Crucially, these findings highlight a need to improve manager knowledge and sensitivity towards women’s health issues, allowing for more open, honest and potentially difficult conversations to take place in the workplace.

Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive at the Fawcett Society, said: “We hope some of the clear solutions offered in this research will encourage employers and Government to step up to the challenge and build a system that works better for women, in order to begin closing the Gender Health Gap”. You can download the research here.

Why more than a million women still keep period sick days a secret

Reinforcing these insights, according to research revealed in the Bupa Wellbeing Index, more than a million women mask period sick days each year because they feel unable to tell their boss the true reason for their absence.

One in eight (13%) women have taken time off work in the last 12 months due to symptoms linked to periods, whilst a third (35%) gave a different reason when requesting the time away. Nearly half (45%) of women don’t feel a period is a valid enough reason to call in sick and around a third feel embarrassed (34%) or are concerned that their employer won’t understand (31%).

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Even when women do take time off work due to their period related symptoms, many still find it difficult to have open conversations about it. This stigma seems to be partly due to a culture of silence continuing in workplaces.

Nicola Green, Commercial Director at Bupa Health Clinics explained: “Women need companies to foster a workplace culture where they feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly. Education, flexible working and access to healthcare services are three ways companies can help women in their workplace manage heavy painful periods, reducing sick days and retaining employees”.

The organisation has launched its Bupa Period Plan so that businesses can offer their employees personalised care for their periods.

Table 1 – Types of period support women are most keen to see in workplaces

RankPeriod support policy/measure% keen to see implemented
1Free sanitary products36%
2Managers being more understanding (of period health)34%
3Days off for period health30%
4Period health included in policies26%
5More open conversations in the workplace24%
6Provide access to services that support periods e.g. GP appointments19%
7Have a standalone policy for periods19%

With women currently making up 48% of the UK workforce, the emphasis that each of these reports puts on the importance of enabling women to thrive at work, sends an essential and positive message to all employers.

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