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Workplace diversity delivers healthy outcomes for all

More workplaces need to step up to the plate in terms of women in leadership roles and workplace culture. 

The number of women in the workforce has never been higher. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 70 per cent of Australian women were in a job as of December 2018, compared with 46 per cent of women who were in paid employment 40 years earlier.

While that growth has cemented women’s role in the workforce, women still face significant obstacles when it comes to equal treatment and respect at work, not least of all when it comes to their health and wellbeing.

The disadvantages women face when it comes to general health are well established, with the 2020 National Women’s Health Strategy stating that women carry a greater risk than men of developing a mental health disorder or experiencing domestic violence.

These societal factors pose an added challenge for businesses in terms of women’s unique health and wellbeing requirements in the workplace.

“Women are half of the population, so I think the idea of it being a niche or unusual [concept] is outdated,” said Katherine Noonan, resident doctor at Perth Children’s Hospital Foundation and head of strategy at Telethon Kids Institute.

Dr Noonan told Business News while workplaces’ existing wellness programs benefited the population generally, the health issues specific to women were still of note, and in many cases did not receive the attention they deserved.

“With conditions like endometriosis or period pain, for some women, that’s once a month and it can be quite debilitating and painful,” Dr Noonan said.

“There’s been a mentality that you should keep that under the radar and not really elaborate on it or tell anyone that’s happening, because the mentality is you should just deal with it.

“I think the thought of someone having such a condition that is painful or debilitating, felt once a month, is a chronic health condition.”

In part, Dr Noonan suggested the lack of understanding surrounding women’s health and wellness at work stemmed from the fact that workplaces weren’t originally designed for women.

“It’s actually quite shocking when you think about how systems and workplaces, safety equipment, clinical trials, are really designed with a “one-size-fits-all” approach, but that one size is a male,” she said.

“Women’s cardiovascular health is something that’s been less understood, because typically studies and trials have been based around men.

“Equally, workplaces weren’t initially built to accommodate women, so I think there are concerted efforts to make workplaces work for women.”

The lack of attention paid to women’s wellbeing at work motivated The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Annette Watkins to begin researching the topic.

Reflecting on her own professional experiences, Professor Watkins told Business News little focus was given to the specific challenges women faced as they progressed through their career.

Primarily, she said, that was because while women were increasingly becoming involved in the workplace, they were still often designated as primary caregivers required to juggle work and life demands.

“We often hear about the busyness of women … but we don’t actually hear that much about the mental load that’s carried by women, and that’s caused by changing roles that often occur throughout the life of a woman,” Professor Watkins said.

Alleviating the mental workload that comes from juggling and changing roles would require a workplace
sympathetic to women’s experiences, she said.

“When we talk about something like OHS, we’re talking about physical environment and the culture we work within that we need to feel emotionally safe in,” Professor Watkins said.

It’s a point that HR consultancy group WCA Solutions director Heather Warner agreed with.

Ms Warner said HR at its base level had to help craft policies and procedures were clear and transparent, ensuring that recruitment, promotions, engagement and training were clear of discrimination in any form.

In doing so, she emphasised HR’s role in
establishing and facilitating culture, arguing businesses could often do simple things to ensure women were comfortable in their roles.

“There are simple things, like if you’re working with people who have children and they’re trying to work during school hours, it’s about not slotting in meetings at 2:30pm when that person has to go,” Ms Warner said.

For that to be possible, a buy-in would be required from management that might otherwise be reluctant to embrace the changes needed to ensure an equitable workplace.

Part of the solution could include an improvement on the rate of women in workplace leadership in Australia.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, only 14 per cent of chair positions were held by women, 26 per cent of directorships, and 17 per cent of chief executive roles with Australian companies.

Ms Warner suggested that if leadership had a more sympathetic view of women’s concerns at work, policies  that supported gender equality would arise.

“It’s all well and good to have fabulous procedures in place, but if you as the boss are not echoing that, and if you’re managers aren’t, and if behaviour that is opposed to that is tolerated or endorsed, then really that creates a mismatch,” Ms Warner said.

“The culture needs to enable and support it.”

Professor Watkins argued a similar point, saying that conversations around women in the workplace needed to support action rather than slogans or clichés.

“The whole vernacular around ‘leaning in’ or ‘stepping up’, we’re told as young females that’s what we need to do,” she said.

“We have [Facebook chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg saying that, but really, at what cost?”

While Professor Watkins urged more conversations around gender-specific issues at work, she said policies that would benefit women, such as flexible hours, would benefit all workers broadly.

Dr Noonan agreed, saying that strong wellness programs and a friendly corporate culture would create an equal environment for women at work.

“When you look at the policies that are going to be beneficial [to women], they are across the board healthy policies; encouraging movement, healthy eating, having stand-up desks or walking meetings,” she said.

“I think the flow-on effect is positive for men in the workplace as well, as being able to juggle family and work commitments is important for women, but also important for men.”

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