Hidden in plain sight: Exploring the challenges working women face and the power of sharing our experiences

A group of women posing with their arms around each otherIn 2023, we know women can do and be whatever they want to be – women are business leaders, prime ministers, campaigners, mothers. Particularly in the PR industry, where women are strongly represented, we celebrate and take advantage of the skills and insights women bring to the workplace – this is nothing new.

At FleishmanHillard UK, we are striving to become the most inclusive PR agency in the world, and this year we are placing a particular focus on intersectionality – how people’s protected characteristics and personal circumstances can converge to create a unique lived experience and set of challenges.

That is why, for International Women’s Day 2023, our mental health employee resource group (ERG) has sought to lift the lid on some experiences of women in the workplace and raise awareness of the unique pressures they face at different stages in their lives and careers. For us to establish a truly level playing field, we can’t simply offer the same opportunities to others that have historically been reserved for white men – we need to recognise the individual and unique barriers people face, in order to truly accommodate them and give them an equitable chance at success.

This means recognising the hidden barriers and struggles that many people may choose to keep to themselves, perhaps driven by a fear that they will be taken less seriously, disregarded for new opportunities, or criticised for “making a fuss”, and think about how we can support those navigating these challenges.

We spoke to several women around the agency, who shared their thoughts on three significant life stages that women navigate: from deciding whether to become a parent – and establishing if that is even possible –, to juggling work commitments and motherhood (especially when negotiating the return from maternity leave), and then adapting to the changes brought by the menopause.

By sharing these experiences, we hope to empower more of us to have open, honest, and frank discussions about our lives and challenges and how they impact our mental health and wellbeing – to push workplaces to continue to evolve and learn to accommodate everyone’s unique needs.

Deciding if, when, and how to have children

“Egg freezing was something I never even knew about maybe five years ago, nor did I care. I’ve always thought about wanting children – and I still strongly believe that it will happen to me – when the timing is right. But life moves quickly and suddenly you find yourself 30-something and wondering about options, such as egg freezing, that I never really gave a second thought to a couple of years ago.

“My story isn’t unusual, I met someone, the pandemic happened, life flashed by, and then we sadly broke up. I found myself confused, and worried, wondering, how did I get here? I didn’t feel the stress of considering kids before, but suddenly being on your own, at a very critical age where most of my friends are having children, it’s kind of terrifying! I found myself researching, wondering, asking questions. Because of where I’m at in my life, it’s a serious option I have to consider – but the process takes a physical, mental, emotional and financial toll.

“I actually don’t know if it’s possible for me or if it would even work. I battle with it a lot – should I wait, maybe I’ll meet someone, I don’t have the money, what is the best approach? Who knows what’s on the cards for me, but I do know it’s a very real situation that could fundamentally alter my life.

“Nonetheless, it’s inspiring to see more women talking about it, doing it, receiving funds from employers to pursue it, and I’ve personally spoken to women in so many different situations who are considering options in this space. Fertility, whatever the journey, is intense, it’s about time we all talk about it.”

  • Anonymous

Navigating the return to work after maternity leave

“A lot has been said about the impact of parenthood on our personal lives but there is much less open discussion about how this affects our working lives. I was lucky enough to receive a lot of support from my colleagues and managers when I was returning to work from maternity leave and to work for a company that has flexible working policies, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

But there are millions of women in the UK who are not as lucky as me. I still remember a conversation with one of my girlfriends before the pandemic when she described juggling childcare and work as the most stressful period of her life. Another friend of mine had to leave her job recently because she was not allowed to work remotely a few days a week to be able to pick up her son from school.

“This lack of flexibility is pushing a lot of women out of the workforce. According to recent ONS data 27.6% of women who were not working last year had chosen to do so because of family commitments, compared to just 7.4% of men. We need to address the double standard for women when it comes to childcare responsibilities and provide everyone with an opportunity to adjust work around their lives if we want to alleviate the pressure on working parents and create a more equitable working environment for everyone.”

  • Diana Kurteva

The M word: managing the menopause

“When did I say I’d send them the first draft? Who was that spokesperson the client just mentioned? Why did I go to the kitchen? We all have memory lapses but when brain fog is more like brain smog, coupled with poor concentration and articulation, it is unsettling. While I’ve always been a light sleeper, the insomnia has worsened in recent years, leaving me exhausted and snappy. And then there’s the hot flushes, painful knees, breathlessness… The list goes on.

“Driven by frustration, fear and, yes, embarrassment, I have made some changes to the way I live and work to address these challenges. While acknowledging the environmental impact of the scores of notebooks I go through (and the risk of developing RSI), writing down pretty much everything on paper does help, whether it’s for meeting preparation, conversation recall or the weekly shop. Magnesium and sleepy teas just before bedtime can help. And taking iron tablets seems to be making a difference to my joints and breathing.

“The good news is the menopause is now more openly discussed, with the likes of Davina McCall talking about her struggles in the media. Last year, I attended an awareness panel at work, where it was reassuring to hear other women’s stories. But there’s much more to be done. I personally need to move on from whispering about the ‘M word’, and not worry about whether it sounds more like an excuse than a reason. And please know it’s not due to disinterest or distraction if I ask you several times about that task, the date of the next meeting, or this year’s holiday plans.”

  • Melanie Dias

At FleishmanHillard UK we have menopause care and support built into our private medical healthcare, and our flexible working policy is designed to be just that: appreciating that we all have different working schedules, commitments, and responsibilities that mean we won’t always be able to work during standard hours. We encourage open discussion about our mental and physical wellbeing with our line managers, practice leads, and HR, and hold training to help empower our leaders to effectively offer appropriate support.

Days can get busy as we focus on getting work out the door and interactions can sometimes feel transactional. Take a moment today to look at your team and reflect on where they may be in their life journey and what you can do to support them. Whether they’re navigating the stresses of wanting children, balancing becoming a new parent (for both women and men), becoming accustomed to menopause, or supporting a loved one. Even if you can’t personally relate, asking about their children, repeating information you’ve already shared without being annoyed, or opening a dialogue can make a huge difference.

I am incredibly grateful to the women who shared their experiences and I hope this will mark the start of even more frank discussions about the challenges we all face, and the unique pressures impacting our health and wellbeing. Career success is not a one-size-fits-all and there is always more work to be done to ensure that workplaces adapt to their people, not the other way around.

Amy Story, Chair of the Mental Health ERG at FleishmanHillard UK with special thanks to our contributors and Charlotte Milton

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