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Breaking the taboo – why organisations shouldn’t just ‘go with the flow’

March has been Women’s History Month and the focus has been acknowledging how far women have come in business and, rightly so, celebrating what women have achieved. It was only in 1928 that women were given the same voting rights as men in Britain and Switzerland was only granted suffrage in 1971. I don’t know about you, but when I consider that Lichenstein (the last Western country) granted suffrage in 1984, I am always left thrown by the idea that, when I was born, there were women in Europe who still did not have the right to vote. Fast forward to 2015 and Saudi Arabia has finally given women the vote. So, realistically it has only been 7 years that women have held the same rights as men.  

In 2022, where are we now?

Women CEOs are becoming the norm instead of the exception. YouTube, a household name worth over $500 million have had a female CEO at the helm since 2014. Women are slowly but surely becoming leaders of what we might have perceived as masculine dominated industries. These include motor cars, defence weaponry, and computer technologies. For example, Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace, defence, security and technologies company that equips some of the world’s most advanced weaponry, is headed by a woman: Marillyn Hewson. At 30, Whitney Wolfe Herd is CEO of MagicLab, a company valued at $3 billion. She is one of the most important women in technology.  

However, there are some dark spots in all this brightness. When it comes to the FTSE100, only 8 companies are led by female CEOs. This is the highest figure since the report started in 1999. Drinks group Diago is leading the forefront of female representation with women making up 60% of board positions.

Women in leadership

I think that we can be extremely proud of what women have achieved in organisations around the world. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the Roffey Park Navigator webinar titled: Women in Leadership: Breaking the Bias and Celebrating Success.

This empowering panel discussion explored female perspectives and the impacts that women leaders have on their organisations. Topics that were covered included discussions around stereotyping of women, dealing with bias in the workplace, and the important topic of thriving as a female leader in 2022’s organisations. As I listened to these women sharing their stories, I felt proud to be a woman and a woman in business.

For the rest of Women’s history month, I explored the topic on social media and listened to the stories that women were sharing. One common thread of discussion I kept stumbling upon was female reproductive healthcare within organisations. Women around the world were sharing stories about how they feel that they need to hide the fact that female bodies work differently from men’s. Moreover, women have different needs throughout the month, and this, and the health surrounding childbirth, can greatly affect our daily experiences in the workplace, even though we are meant to be ‘equal’.

It’s time to be open

“It’s 2022, and periods are still a topic that most people whisper about.” Nadya Okamoto: Co-founder of August and non-profit organization Period.

There is still so much shame centred around menstruation. I remember once walking from my office to the bathroom, clutching a fresh tampon in my fist. A male colleague stopped me on the way and as we were talking, the tampon accidentally fell out of my hand. His reaction was one of disgust. “That’s revolting!” was the response to a sealed item that women cannot avoid using. This was 2016.  

Periods are tough on women with many suffering from cramps so debilitating that they cannot get out of bed, PMS-induced anxiety and heavy flow days that risk bleeding into your business wear during a meeting. If this wasn’t bad enough, some experience headaches that make it impossible to look at a computer screen.

Japan has had the right to sick leave during menstruation as part of labour law since 1947. But how often do you encounter an organisation in the United Kingdom that offers period leave? Even BUPA recommends that women when experiencing uncomfortable menstruation symptoms should continue with their day as much as possible. The message received is that we should not show any weakness, and not vocalise the effects that this can have on us. It is time that organisations start openly talking about menstruation and remove the shame and taboo around this subject. We need to acknowledge that this is not a weakness, but an impact on health.

The need to educate and change

“In general, there is an enormous gap for employers to understand the biological needs of their staff.”Michela Bedard, Executive Director of Period. 

How organisations understand the biological needs of their staff is becoming increasingly important. It isn’t just the concept of period leave, but also includes how your organisation is supporting lactating parents? Is your organisation offering emotional and physical support to those going through menopause? How safe is the psychological space in your organisation for people of all genders to approach managers and leaders about these topics? Are miscarriages falling under general sick leave or is there further support and access to the open conversation surrounding this? 

These reproductive issues that women are encountering are not small in numbers. As we have seen, there are many more women in leadership and in the workforce than in previous years and these are areas that need to be addressed. 

So how can organisations do this?

  1. Remove the taboo around periods. As leaders and managers engage in conversations with your employees and check in on them. This can become a gateway to more open conversations with your teams. Also, a space where people become comfortable discussing issues that they’re dealing with. 
  1. Write menstrual leave company policies. This, as awkward a conversation as it is, could be an opening to creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace within your organisation. 
  1. Place free sanitary wear in office bathrooms. The fact that this is still taxed as a luxury can place financial burdens on many of your workforces. This simple act can greatly benefit someone. 
  1. Open a safe and comforting space that lactating people can use throughout the day. Make sure that these people don’t need to hide in a bathroom cubical to breast pump. This will make new parents feel more supported and heard. They won’t need to try and hide the fact that they have recently had a child. 
  1. Engage in training for managers and leaders around the effects of menopause. This is so that all colleagues understand what menopausal people are going through. What could appear as a performance issue from a disinterested employee, may be the effect of poor concentration, memory loss, depression, and hot flushes that menopause can bring. 
  1. Support people going through a miscarriage. The emotional effects of something like this linger far longer than the physical. Statutory sick leave may not be enough. Sick leave should be for an illness. Miscarriage is not an illness and needs to be treated separately.

Beyond the glass ceiling

It is important to discuss the leadership advances that women have made in organisations across the world. To praise them for how they have shattered the glass ceiling. However, acknowledging women’s reproductive rights in the workplace is as important a conversation as equality in the workforce.  Let’s not just shatter the glass ceiling. Let’s break the misogyny that dictates that equality in the workplace means ignoring our reproductive health needs. 

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