Women’s Wellbeing in the Workplace: Let’s Stop Accepting the Status Quo and Instead #ChooseToChallenge
At every stage of their personal (and therefore working) lives, women face changes and challenges that are unique to them and poorly understood or catered for by men and - more often than not - male-dominated or designed workplaces. Across the globe, but particularly in Asia, these topics are rarely discussed and seen as shameful or taboo to be tackled in an open forum. This silence, misunderstanding and lack of resources to cater to a female workforce is contributing to the leaking pipeline of female talent and posing an additional barrier to women’s advancement in the workplace. While there have been some moves on the global stage to engage with the conversation about women’s health and the specific challenges that they face, more could be done to bring these topics to Asia and localise the discussion to service our workplaces and the nuances that women in our key markets face.
By using the female health cycle as a guide, it becomes clear that women at all stages of their career (and not just at the peak of their reproductive journey) can be affected by the shame and mystery associated with their specific health and wellbeing. What is interesting to note is that all these topics can (and have been) used against women – to hold them back, to remove opportunities from them or to belittle or undermine them. In the male-dominated workplace a woman’s body and the stage of life that she is in is almost always seen as a disadvantage to the company, something that is to be brushed under the rug or overcome rather than celebrated and catered for. Instead of accepting this status quo, women should harness the theme of International Women’s Day 2021 and #ChooseToChallenge, breaking down the stigma and taboo attached to these gendered experiences in the workplace in Asia.
The global conversation around the realities of menstruation has gained traction in recent years, with countries such as Scotland and New Zealand implementing measures to combat ‘period poverty’ and provide sanitary products. While steps like this are encouraging, it is important to recognise that there are still huge social barriers to overcome. Women are trained from a young age to hide and compensate for menstruation; whispered conversations to find out who might have a spare tampon begin at school and continue well into the workplace. With 50% of the population experiencing this phenomenon every month for an average of 30 – 40 years of their lives, there is a significant lack of research into both the pain and medical conditions associated with menstruation. Women have been socially conditioned to put up with and ignore debilitating pain - it is only recently that the impact of male-dominated medical research is coming to light and historic instances of medical gaslighting associated with endometriosis are being acknowledged and challenged.
In Asia, there have been a few companies that have opened up the conversation around menstrual health, with organisations in China and India offering medical leave for women with their period. Critics however note that such measures could inadvertently increase discrimination and stigma against women and ultimately decrease their opportunities to join the decision-making, male-dominated, senior staff. Whether the outcome will hinder women or not, it is encouraging to see companies taking on the topic at any level, keeping in mind that it was only this time last year that hospitals in Wuhan were turning away female sanitary donations for doctors and nurses because the male administrators did not consider them vital supplies.
Pregnancy, Returning to Work & Breastfeeding
Labour laws across the region should, in theory, protect pregnant women and mothers returning to work from discrimination. In practice however, women in Singapore and China report feeling coerced to quit their jobs upon announcing their pregnancy, or having their competency questioned when they return to work. Women in these situations rarely take legal action against their employers for unfair dismissal or treatment for fear of tarring their reputations and hindering chances of finding work in the future. In some cases, women face discrimination even before they become pregnant, with potential employers in China disregarding the law and questioning women about their fertility and plans to have a family in interviews. Even if interviewers are not explicitly asking these questions at the interview stage, it is important that unconscious biases against women of child-bearing age are taken into consideration. Even today, many women choose to remove their wedding or engagement rings for interviews for fear that it could indicate they are planning to start a family.
Upon returning to the office following maternity leave, many women face barriers when it comes to either breastfeeding or expressing milk in the workplace. Women report having to hide in public toilets or extend the time between expressing sessions to the point where they risk infection. If they are able to express milk their employers often will not provide the necessary equipment to keep it cold and sterile – with mothers noting that they often lose the milk they have expressed or are unable to take it home in a condition that is safe to administer to a child. All these factors lead lots of women to simply give up breastfeeding when they return to work. There have been some advances however, for example, the new legislation coming into effect in Hong Kong in June 2021 that prohibits discrimination against women who are breastfeeding.
Caregiving responsibilities in Asia fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Our recent publication, Balancing Career & Caregiving: The Role of Companies in Asia, noted that women in Asia perform four times as much unpaid care work than their male counterparts. It is important to remember that the burden of caregiving in Asia does not just refer to childcare. Navigating their role as caregivers for elderly family members, in-laws or relations with chronic illnesses or disabilities is singularly complex for women in the workforce compared to men. These responsibilities can heighten at any point throughout a woman’s career – often contributing to that invisible bias that stops women from climbing the ladder.
Tackling this unfair burden should be prioritised by companies – and our recent publication explores recommendations to help adjust and reframe policies. But wider societal norms in Asia should be brought into question too. In Hong Kong for example it is pertinent to question how we can expect men to take on an equal share of childcare responsibilities, when the government only mandates five days of paternity leave. The traditional role of the women as nurturer in the early years of child development must be tackled if we want fathers and husbands to step up and take an active role in this care.
Fertility Rates, Infertility, Miscarriage & Child Loss
Examples of women in the public eye speaking out about their experience of fertility issues, miscarriage and child loss have increased recently – notable women such as Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen sharing their experiences in the last year. In Asia too public figures such as Lee Teng and Lim Peifen have chosen to chronicle their child loss experiences in a bid to breakdown the stigma and shame attached to this subject and that disproportionately falls on women. Companies are yet to tackle this issue and the emotional and physical toll it has on working women, and yet, miscarriage is much more common than the silence around it would lead us to believe. In Hong Kong for example, 9,000 women experience miscarriage every year and yet there is a distinct lack of grief counselling and support.
Equal attention should be paid to those women experiencing fertility issues and the societal pressure placed upon them. An employer dedicated to the holistic wellbeing of its employees should accommodate the emotional and physical toll that fertility issues and long-term treatment can have on women at work. While the start-up industry is beginning to buck this trend, it is disappointing to note that, according to a study carried out in Japan, 20% of women undertaking fertility treatment felt they had to leave work because their employer was not supportive.
For those women who manage to overcome the patriarchal obstacles to their careers that we have already touched upon, success and professional status can come simultaneously with the arrival of the menopause. Societal pressure to remain eternally youthful, combined with stereotyping, ridicule and misinformation lead women to avoid speaking up about the issues that they are facing when experiencing the symptoms of menopause at work. Without a clear advocates voice, policies to help mitigate stress and assist women in need are not implemented or actively shared. But this issue should be tackled head on by organisations looking to nurture female employees throughout their careers, understanding that menopause as a topic both at work and in wider society, remains particularly shrouded in misogyny – even when other issues that face female employees are being shaken from these confines.
D&I and Intersecting Identities and Issues
Acknowledging that women's experiences in the workplace are not homogenous and can change over time is vital to implementing a strategy that will cater to all female employees at the various stages of their life. Women’s experience is varied and at any given time they can be under the influence of multiple identities, barriers and other factors. In order to effectively cater to the needs of staff, organisations must take into consideration how women are affected by: family status; sexual and gender orientation; religion, race and culture; and disability to name a few. Hearing the voices of these women and understanding the nuances at play for them will help companies to respond appropriately and support their staff in the most proactive and fruitful way.
In this piece we have only scratched the surface of themes relating to women’s health and wellbeing in the workplace in Asia. Community Business is keen to explore this conversation in more detail over the coming months and is planning a series of fireside chat style discussions with experts and advocates from across the region. To find out more and get involved, please get in touch with our team.
About the Author: Emily Moss, Head of Marketing & Communications at Community Business