Women in healthcare want the second glass ceiling lifted

Three quarters of women working in healthcare globally believe the next generation will get the support they need to stay productive for as long as men – but optimism is lower in healthcare than in most other sectors.

Nearly seven in 10 women working in healthcare globally (68%) believe the next generation will receive the flexibility and support needed to stay productive in the workforce for as long as men, with 76% of them urging businesses to drive this change.

However optimism in healthcare is lower than in most other sectors (74% in finance think the coming generation will receive this support, 79% in Architecture, Engineering & Building and 75% in manufacturing).

The findings come from newly commissioned data, summarised in a BSI report entitled Lifting the Second Glass Ceiling, exploring why some women leave the workforce early for reasons other than personal choice.

The research finds that 80% of women in healthcare say experienced female mentors can benefit the development of younger women, yet 37% say it remains uncommon to see women in healthcare leadership roles (although this is below the 42% global average covering all sectors).

The report by BSI, the business improvement and standards company, explores the perceived barriers to organisations supporting the retention of experienced women and the economic and social benefits to be realised from addressing the second glass ceiling (whereby women leave the workforce early and for reasons other than personal preference).

It concluded that this is, in fact, not only an issue for older women as male colleagues and different generations across all sectors can also contribute to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive culture of care.

As in many STEM-based industries, Diversity and inclusion (DEI) programs are growing in the healthcare sector and pharmaceutical organizations as a part of sustainability strategies.

The financial investment community has produced guidance to biopharmaceutical organisations on how they should be reporting in its ESG reports on what they are doing with the 'S' social - looking at its people 'Human Capital Management' – including DEI broadly, but also employee turnover rates and questions around employee retention.

The guidance has gone further to also look at voluntary and involuntary causes of employee departure – including looking in particular at the context of the departures.

Overall, the report reveals the desire for action from organisations and policymakers, with 81% of women in healthcare saying greater flexibility would be valuable (above the average of 76%), and 74% wanting organisations to support women experiencing symptoms of menopause, something a quarter in healthcare specifically mentioned as a barrier to remaining in work (above the average of 21%).

Also, 78% said formal policies around this, difficult pregnancies, or miscarriage are helpful (above the average of 76%), but only 5% are aware of these being in place and 56% said they would be uncomfortable raising this with an employer.

Overall, one in two women in healthcare said their own health was holding them back, considerably higher than for women in finance (36%), the arts (28%) or Architecture, Engineering & Building (37%). This follows research by BSI earlier this year suggesting many in the hospital workforce are struggling with burnout and their well-being post pandemic.

"Addressing the Second Glass Ceiling (SGC) can offer many benefits, from enhancing productivity to ensuring organizations retain talented people and, if retention is not possible, diving into the context for which involuntary departures occur."

Courtney Soulsby, director of Healthcare sector BSI, said: "As our research shows, there are many factors that can lock women out of the healthcare workforce – but there are also clear strategies and drivers to address this, from support for workers experiencing the menopause to steps in other areas such as working flexibly and breaking down stigma that could contribute to an enhanced work environment for all."

"Linking focus on extending opportunities to women of all ages in the workforce to organizations’ sustainability strategies and reporting can lead to concrete social and human capital benefits."

"Rather than see the considerations facing older women as a challenge, we can gain by seeing this as an opportunity for investment in current and future generations and an opportunity to boost growth, innovation and accelerate progress towards a sustainable world."

Asked about barriers to remaining in work, one in three women in healthcare (29%) specifically cited caring responsibilities – for parents or children, while 22% cited lack of flexibility, 16% cited lack of progression opportunities for women and 17% lack of pay parity.

Overall, 76% of women in healthcare said that enabling older women to remain productive in the workforce can contribute to economic growth (above the average of 72%), while 74% want governments to act.

In a sign the SGC could be lifted over the generations in healthcare, 58% of those in the sector were optimistic that their generation of women will achieve gender pay parity with their male colleagues And 64% said their generation of women will achieve leadership positions to the same degree as their male colleagues.

The report makes a series of recommendations to lift the SGC, including:

  • Recognise the benefits of lifting the second glass ceiling. Rather than see this as a challenge, organisations can approach it as an opportunity to boost growth, innovation and accelerate progress towards a sustainable world
  • Open the dialogue – ask women what they want – uncovering solutions that can reverse the trends and enable more women to thrive throughout their professional lives.
  • Ensure support is available and accessible, whether around menopause or other considerations
  • See flexibility as an asset and recognise that small adjustments where possible can help ensure an accommodating workplace
  • Institute a broader culture of care – prioritise people by promoting individual needs
  • Share best practice – collaboration across organisations, sectors and countries can drive progress

The research followed extensive work by BSI to help organisations meet the needs of employees experiencing menopause or menstruation. 

In May, BSI published the Menstruation, menstrual health, and menopause in the workplace standard (BS 30416), setting out practical recommendations for workplace adjustments. Last year BSI published best practice guidance creating an age-inclusive workforce (BS ISO 25550:2022). BSI’s Prioritising People© model is a best practice framework for human high performance focused on culture, engagement and well-being over the career lifecycle.

Three Quarters of Women Working in Healthcare Globally Want to See Action to Lift the Second Glass Ceiling

Kate Field, global head health, safety and well-being, BSI, said: "Organisations have the opportunity to partner with their people to build diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace cultures with the potential to bring enormous benefit to individuals, organisations, and society.

"As BSI’s Prioritizing People Model© sets out, when organisations build a culture of care that addresses everyone’s well-being, including physical, psychological and fulfilment needs, the result can be an engaged, committed, and productive workforce."

"There are clearly many reasons women decide not to stay in the workplace, and when that is a genuine choice that should be celebrated. However, the data shows there are those who would like to remain in work and would welcome greater support from their employers to do so."

As a purpose-driven organisation, BSI is committed to advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, making a positive impact for the benefit of everyone. Lifting the second glass ceiling can help us all take steps to fulfil these goals, including Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) and Goal 10 (reduced inequalities).

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