How shame around women’s health led me to create a Diversity & Inclusion policy for all
Anneka Vestey shares the personal story behind Contented’s groundbreaking policy.
I’m an oversharer. Which is why I have absolutely no qualms about talking to everyone and anyone who’ll listen about my period. Be they painful, heavy or just downright gross, I really don’t shy away from getting into the details, even at work.
One of the reasons I am so comfortable talking about my period is because for the past four years, they have been incredibly painful. It’s almost impossible for me not to talk about them, because once a month I am doubled over in pain, unable to move or at worst passing out if I don’t get to the painkillers quick enough. I have really struggled with this, because, as you would expect from a production lead in a fast-moving advertising company, I don’t like to be slowed down by anything and it frustrates me that once a month for a couple of days I have to take things slower or worse, not even turn up at all.
But the first time it happened at Contented, I made a conscious effort to tell my bosses (all male) exactly why I was going to be late for work that day and to tell my colleagues why I sat at my desk with a hot water bottle. It was really important for me not to lie about it and just as important to see them take it seriously. They never made me feel guilty, or ashamed or like I was being difficult, which was a huge relief.
But I appear to be in the minority, because according to research undertaken by Bloody Good Period “nine in 10 of those who menstruate say they experience period anxiety at work”. Their campaign entitled “No Shame Here” culminated in an incredible music video released on Menstrual Health Day that aimed to break down the shame associated with menstruation, and get society to accept this natural biological process.
And it’s not just periods we have a problem with. In her recent Channel 4 documentary Sex, Myths & the Menopause Davina McCall explained that nine out of 10 women felt menopause had a negative impact in their working life, but only one in 10 companies had a working menopause policy in place.
Why is there so much shame? And why are we so afraid to talk about women’s health in the workplace? It’s because traditionally, our workplaces have never exactly been safe spaces in this area. We keep it quiet because we fear for our jobs (just take a look at some of the Real Stories on Pregnant Then Screwed). We keep it quiet because there is often no one in the business we feel we can talk to without fear or embarrassment, nor are there HR policies that speak to our issues.
Now I’m at a point in my career where I can enact change, I recognised a real need for a workplace policy that fully encompasses women’s health matters in an inclusive and empathetic way. So I set about writing one.
Working with Lucy Barker, a consultant from Human Nature HR, we spent a lot of time talking about Contented and its culture, and how I wanted to translate the openness, empathy and support I was experiencing there into a workplace policy. She helped me recognise that although I thought this was going to be a policy on women’s health, it actually translated into a full D&I policy, because we could apply the same thinking across all areas of life where work and home intersect.
So our policy encompasses everything from equal opportunities in recruitment, to flexible working, gender-neutral language in job descriptions, adoption and fertility treatments, gender reassignment, menstrual health and much, much more.
The policy goes into detail on how we can strive towards a more diverse and gender-equal workplace, not just by empowering women, but by offering men opportunities too. Tangible things like enhanced maternity and paternity are great, but it’s the intangible support you get from a supportive work culture that is really the backbone of our policy. No matter what you are going through, come and talk to us, and we will work something out that suits your needs for that time. It is not a one-size-fits-all policy, because that is not how life operates, but it is the foundation of a positive working culture.
I published Contented’s policy on LinkedIn and immediately got a flood of messages from people across the industry, all wanting tips and advice on how to create one within their own organisation. So here are my top tips on how to create an authentic D&I policy:
- Be prepared to listen. The main job of the policy is to give people permission to talk openly about things they need help with and find a way to support them. If our staff take anything away from reading the policy, I hope it’s that they know they can talk to one of us about what they are going through.
- Be authentic. Make sure it reflects your culture and your employees because a good D&I policy can’t paper over the cracks in poor work culture.
- It’s never perfect or finished. An inclusive D&I policy will always be a work in progress. I’m already working on the next stage of our policy in order to include more on mental health, disability and neurodiversity.
- Make it public. The hardest part of creating the policy was trying to find out what the “industry standard” was – but for a lot of the topics we cover, there isn’t one, so be brave about making your policy public: share it with your staff, your network and the wider industry to inspire and inform others about what industry-standards should look like.