Body and Voice: When Women Should Be Treated Differently At Work

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You read that right. Sometimes women and men need to be treated differently at work. Wait. What? You might be asking—isn’t the idea of equality in the modern workplace to treat everyone the same?

As it turns out, not exactly. The idea is to achieve gender representation and gender equity by acknowledging and valuing our differences, not minimizing them. The fact is that women and men have different physiologies, different finances, different challenges, and different needs. In order to drive equality in the workplace, we must begin by meeting both men and women where they are.

When it comes to health and wellness, those are very different places. Women have different bodies and different risk factors. They also (unfortunately) experience different—often lower— standards of care than many men in our society and reduced agency over their own bodies.

To address this imbalance means designing benefits, education, and management plans in our companies that adapt to specific needs and do not shy away from gender differences. Especially when women are the target of one of the most severe workplace epidemics we have ever seen. As Mercer’s When Women Thrive research found, organizations that address the gender-specific health needs of their workforce have better female representation at all levels of the organization.

Unfortunately, in our current social environment, women’s voices and agency are compromised.  Women are not just denied access to quality care – they are also discriminated against in the delivery of this care. Women’s experiences and voices are systematically downplayed or discounted in the medical system. This also extends to mental health, and in particular the long-term effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.

At Mercer, we believe a successful approach to women’s health must originate from a culture of listening, learning and advocacy—but also an awareness of the dangers of degrading the experiences and voices of women.

Consider the case of Serena Williams, who recently told the shocking story of her pregnancy to Vogue magazine. As a lifelong athlete, Williams was acutely aware of and sensitive to her own physiology. Realizing something was wrong during her pregnancy, she told her caregivers she wanted a CT scan for blood clots. Her requests were dismissed. Second-guessed and ignored, Williams persisted until her medical providers finally did what she asked. When they scanned, they did indeed find blood clots in her lungs. 

If a woman with the resources and health knowledge that Serena Williams has can be ignored—it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the female population.

According to Pat Milligan from Mercer’s When Women Thrive practice, Mercer research has shown that “women are better represented and have higher advancement rates in organizations that offer programs targeted to their unique health and wealth needs; however few organizations are linking these important levers to help women thrive.”

Unfortunately, our benefits programs and flexibility simply have not caught up to the realities of women’s health, and that means health outcomes are similarly damaged if we are silencing women’s voices at work.

Here are some of the health needs that Mercer research has identified that affect women differently, more commonly, or uniquely:

  • Cancers that only or primarily affect women
  • Fertility/infertility, pregnancy, fetal health
  • Menopause
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Depressive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Migraines
  • Sleep disorders
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Obesity
  • Nutrition/wellness
  • Drug side effects

Are you taking the steps in your organization to treat your female employees in empathetic ways that meet these unique needs?

Madeleine Winslow
by Madeleine Winslow

Diversity and Inclusion Specialist, Mercer

Diversity & Inclusion Consultant, When Women Thrive, Mercer

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