Although great strides have been made, few people would claim that western countries have achieved total gender equality. While many issues faced by women are broadly publicised, some remain that are either skirted around or ignored altogether. Chief amongst these are provisions for women in the workplace: the trifecta of hygiene, health and childcare facilities.
Despite the existence of so-called ‘potty parity’ regulations, the application of the law is often inadequate, and frequently excuses the planning decisions of private businesses. Other issues are still subject to stigma, or a lack of awareness from business leaders. This lack of clarity and enforcement means small businesses must take matters into their own hands.
One of the least discussed yet most challenging issues for women in the workplace is menstruation. A quarter of adolescent girls and women are menstruating at any given time, and the proportion of young women in the workforce is increasing globally. Roughly 50% of these women will suffer from cramps of varying severity, with a study in Tehran indicating that 10% of women were forced to miss 1-3 days of work a month due to extreme pain and discomfort.
In spite of the extreme commonality of this problem, recognition of the toll it takes on women is not widely recognised or discussed in working environments. Managers can be suspicious of extensive time spent in the bathroom, and allowances are rarely made for missed work days or drops in productivity. Facilities meanwhile are often woefully inadequate, with most legislation not enforcing the provision of sanitary bins or emergency products and pain relief.
Bathroom facilities are also frequently out of step with the requirements of employees. Some territories have 1:1 ratios or better, but these are often only applied to public buildings. Even then this tends to be inadequate: evidence indicate women require twice as much time in bathrooms as men due to physiological and cultural differences. Men’s bathrooms also benefit from urinals taking up less space than stalls, making equal space requirements ineffective too.
These combined factors can cause embarrassment and unnecessary stress, as women must constantly fret about and cater for a number of issues that men do not experience, or often acknowledge. But it also has an effect on productivity. Time queuing for bathrooms – or travelling to a distant bathroom, as female elected officials had to do until 2011 in the House of Representatives – is not just uncomfortable; it’s time that should be better spent elsewhere.
It would be easy to conflate health and hygiene, but there are a number of factors relating to workplace health and safety that are barely considered. Ergonomics are often not adhered to by either gender, but women are often at a natural disadvantage. Machinery may be designed to be operated by a taller person, while chairs and monitors may not be height adjustable.
PPE clothing and equipment for instance is often designed and sized chiefly for men, compromising its protective qualities. There are also non-health related access issues, such as having to ask male colleagues to fetch things from a high shelf, open a window, or adjust the air conditioning, all of which can make people feel disempowered.
Efforts also need to be stepped up in catering for women in other phases of their lives. Pregnant women require different ergonomic considerations and more personal accommodations, such as being able to sit down while working, or more bathroom breaks. Even more widely ignored are the requirements of women during the menopause, where dedicated rest or medical rooms and freely available drinking water can help immensely.
One of the chief impediments to keeping women in the workforce is the absence of suitable childcare. This can be both a monetary concern, where there is literally no means of taking care of a child and working full-time; as well as a mental concern, where the thought of leaving your childcare to a nanny or babysitter is distracting and discomforting. Many women also face additional health concerns following childbirth that may make things even more difficult, including postpartum depression and stress incontinence.
Maternity leave is an obvious requirement, but for those women who wish to resume working quickly, paternity leave is also important. Most countries also prevent employers from discriminating based on an employee’s intention to have children, although companies can still enact this less explicitly than asking direct questions. It should go without saying, but all efforts should be made to avoid pressuring women into deferring plans to have children.
There are numerous ways employers can accommodate for mothers, to the benefit of themselves and their employees. A company creche will not be an option for smaller businesses, but being in close proximity to your child eases worries significantly.
Another option is bringing children into the office environment. This is a careful balancing act, and may require a quieter working space for those who are easily disturbed, but it can also have a positive effect for the mother and the workplace. Remember however that accommodations also have to be made for a baby changing area, as well as a room to breastfeed in.
With no clear restrictions outside of broad discrimination laws, it is largely up to small businesses to set the standard for women in the workplace. Some obvious advice holds true: be respectful, listen to colleagues, and involve women in the decision-making process. But there’s nothing to stop you taking preemptive measures either. Making all bathrooms gender neutral is an obvious (and increasingly popular) change that can save significant hassle.
In many ways, small businesses are perfectly situated to make these changes, and instill a positive working culture and environment from the get-go. Individual requirements can be catered to on a personal basis, customising workstations and equipment to suit each employee. Starting out with a positive attitude towards women’s issues in the workplace is likely to increase the gender diversity of your staff, leading to further incremental improvements. And substantial evidence exists to suggest that a more diverse workforce is a more productive one.
These are rights issues, but they’re also broadly ways to make women feel more comfortable in the workplace. All sorts of cultural and institutional problems fall under this umbrella: forcing women to wear high heels; sexist decor in cubicles; or ‘lads mags’ and tabloid newspapers strewn around the office. Taking the time to consider your words and actions, and encouraging other to do the same, is the first and biggest step towards greater workplace equality.