Fiona Wylie, founder of ‘Championing Women’s Health’ and Brand Champions, spends some time with award-winning author and health expert Dr Sarah Brewer ahead of the taboo tackling event due to take place next month at the Pomme D’or Hotel, sponsored by Healthspan.
Dr Brewer, during your time as a GP, what was your experience of the gender health gap?
I found that too many women put up with menstrual symptoms (heavy periods, cramps, PMS) and troublesome menopausal symptoms (for example, anxiety, hot flushes, loss of sex drive, low moods) without seeking help. They assume it is part of ‘being a woman’ and they’ve just got to put up with it, perhaps partly because it is not something we discuss as openly as say, managing a headache or a fever. We need to build a better general understanding and address our comfort levels when it comes to discussing our natural cycles.
Looking more broadly now across your whole career, of all the facts you’ve read about the gender health gap, what do you find most shocking or alarming?
There have been so many alarming facts to come out of the recent UK government report into the gender health gap, not least that 8 in 10 women feel they were not listened to by healthcare professionals. Anyone that has not yet had a chance to read the report, I urge they do so (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-sets-clear-ambition-to-close-gender-health-gap--3)
Looking specifically at menopause (an area in which I specialize) there have been several recent surveys into how the menopause effects a woman’s ability to work and the culture that surrounds it.
For example, a recent Gympass survey revealed that 45% of perimenopausal and menopausal employed women aged 45-64 have felt embarrassed by their menopause symptoms at work and a third of women have pretended their symptoms were something else at work to avoid mentioning their menopause by name.
• 81% of women say their employer doesn't provide help with menopause or its symptoms
• Two thirds of women don’t feel able to speak to their boss about the issues they face
• Over half say that stress at work makes menopause symptoms worse
• 90% of female employees would be ‘more likely’ or ‘a lot more likely’ to join or stay at a company that has a menopause support plan
As the menopause does not affect men, this is clearly a gendered issue and workplaces will need to ensure they are not brought up on grounds of discrimination for failing to provide facilities and procedures for women going through the menopause. I am sure this will be an area of much discussion in the coming months and years.
What do you think can be done to narrow this health gap?
We need to encourage a level of comfort and fluency when it comes to talking about female health at a very young age. Our embarrassment around female reproductive health isn’t innate, it is something society has taught. Including a wider range of information about female health within the school curriculum for both boys and girlswould go a long way to helping close the gap.
How do you think we can normalise conversations about ‘taboo’ subjects in the workplace?
The UK government’s ambition is that all women should feel comfortable talking about their health and issues, suchas menopause in the workplace.
I would like to see the menopause added as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 to provide women with greater protection and to help tackle the stigma around menopause.
What advice would you give to a woman struggling to manage menopause symptoms at work?
Speak to HR about having access to a quiet breakout room, fans, a water cooler and hot waterbottles - requestflexible working hours to help manage menstrual and menopause symptoms.
These are very manageable and reasonable requests to make that most employers would be happy to provide - the harder part might be encouraging a workplace culture in which employees feel comfortable asking for this support. Companies may find that organizing training for all colleagues about women’s health issues and nominating aspecific staff member as a Woman’s Health Champion helps to create this culture.
Dr Sarah Brewer will appear on the panel of the taboo tackling event, ‘Championing Women’s Health’ on the 17thMarch, 2022 at The Pomme D’Or Hotel.
Limited tickets for the in person ‘Championing Women’s Health’ event and tickets to the live stream can be purchased here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/tackle-taboos-and-smash-the-stigmas-of-womens-health-with-brand-champions-tickets-219903496277