Addressing the gender health gap

gender health gap
  • The gender health gap describes disparities in healthcare access and care outcomes based on gender.
  • Data and survey feedback can determine if an organisation has a gender health gap.
  • Investing in diverse, inclusive and equitable health support can go some way to addressing a gender health gap.

The gender health gap refers to disparities in health outcomes and access to, and quality of, healthcare depending on an individual’s gender. Women might face barriers in accessing services due to socio-economic factors, a lack of policies or cultural norms, whereas men may face barriers seeking mental health support due to stigma.

Benenden Health’s Gender health gap report, published in February 2024, revealed that UK women take up to nine days off work annually due to a lack of workplace support for their health, which can impact their career progression and mental health, and could lead to discontentment and lower retention levels. This raises the question of what employers can do to identify and rectify a gender health gap.

Affected conditions and treatments

When it comes to the gender health gap, there are several health conditions where women are disproportionately affected, including mental health, fertility, menopause, menstrual health, pregnancy, childbirth and post-natal support.

Identifying the health conditions most affecting employees is crucial, says Rebecca Mian, director of people services (HR) at Benenden Health. “While women want support for health issues such as pregnancy loss, endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome, specific aids like pregnancy loss leave and improved maternity policies are particularly important,” she explains. “Equally, access to free sanitary products in the workplace is still underprovided.”

One of the causes of a gender health gap is a gender data gap. This is the result of missing evidence for diseases that disproportionately impact women due to lack of funding, as well as the inclusion of women in clinical trials and existing evidence interpreted using men as the default.

Samantha O’Donovan, chief people officer at Axa Global Healthcare, says: “Women may receive less effective pain management and are sometimes not taken seriously by healthcare providers compared to men. Meanwhile, in reproductive health or preventative care, men tend to receive less attention and fewer screenings.”

Calculating a gender health gap

In order to determine whether they have a gender health gap, employers should start by regularly gathering and analysing relevant data. Wellbeing surveys can provide insights into how employees perceive workplace health support and any issues they may have.

Rachel Western, health and risk principal at Aon, says: “Employers can assess health data on a deeper level, such as absence data and benefit utilisation data. This can focus on various demographics to highlight any factors other than gender that may be impacting health outcomes.”

Feedback from employee community groups can help employers build a picture of their workforce’s health, as well as understand access, experience and outcomes across different demographics. Exit interview data could also be evaluated, as this can reveal whether health-related factors contributed to employees’ decisions to leave.

Dr Suba M, medical director at Aviva UK Health, says: “Employers could look at differences in sickness absence between genders, reviewing the cause of absence as well as the incidence and duration. They could also see whether there are differences in satisfaction and engagement with health and wellbeing benefits.”

Other ways to determine a gender health gap include analysing health insurance claims to identify frequency, type and cost differences, and examining disability claims by gender.

Addressing and resolving

Employers can work to reduce a gender health gap within their own organisation by proactively supporting the health needs and priorities of all employees. This is key as staff who experience health disparities may face higher rates of illness and absenteeism, which can lead to disengagement and a lack of productivity.

To address a gap, organisations should invest in diverse, inclusive and equitable health plans, such as access to fertility and family benefits. This can help support women’s overall rates of health, which can positively impact an employer’s bottom line.

Wendy Sherry, chief executive officer of global health benefits, international health at Cigna Healthcare, says: “Robust and comprehensive whole person and mental health support are also key considerations, with women being disproportionally impacted by poor mental health. By fostering a healthy, inclusive workplace culture, and providing comprehensive and equitable health benefits, employers can drive retention and attempt to close a gender health gap for women in the workplace.”

Identifying holes in employee provision or support can also help to address a gap. Better education around specific female health concerns can go some way to minimising it, as well as initiatives aimed at removing health inequality across a whole workforce.

“It’s about treating people as individuals, understanding their needs, and introducing solutions that help remove barriers,” says Mian. “Employers should pinpoint the specific health issues affecting women in their workforce and implement targeted and genuinely supportive measures that not only aim to close a gender health gap, but also create an inclusive and supportive work environment.”

Attempting to remove stigma and taboos often associated with women’s health can help employers raise awareness of the gender health gap and better understand employees’ experiences.

“Employers should provide opportunity for employees to get health screening and preventative care services, and review and update health policies and benefits to ensure they are inclusive and supporting of all genders,” adds O’Donovan.

One way to address female employees’ needs is to listen to them, as their insights can guide policies.

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Ashley Holland, senior vice president, total rewards at Organon, says: By regularly gathering feedback from all employees about their health needs and the effectiveness of policies, organisations can continually refine and adapt their strategies to better serve the needs of their people.” 

By putting in place dedicated policies, raising awareness of women’s health issues and encouraging open conversations, employers can go some way to help close a gender health gap.