It’s time our sector’s comms found its voice on ‘embarrassing' women’s health issues

Spoiler alert: if conversations about menstruation, menopause or vaginal dryness make you feel uncomfortable, stop reading now – this article isn’t for you.

We don't just want to be heard, we want to be involved, argues Claire Gillis
We don't just want to be heard, we want to be involved, argues Claire Gillis

You won’t be on your own – after all, so-called ‘women’s problems’ are apparently so embarrassing they’re rarely spoken out loud. But times they are a-changing – possibly.

Earlier this year, a BBC Breakfast presenter described her traumatic experiences of having a contraceptive coil fitted. The daytime TV audience choked on its cornflakes. Yet Naga Munchetty’s honest account triggered debate about the "shameful taboo" of sharing female health issues. It gave women’s health some much-needed profile, and followed hot on the heels of brassy PR campaigns about tampons and wombs winning big at Cannes.

If all this passed you by, maybe you’d recoiled in embarrassment when the headlines hit your timeline? It’s not uncommon. But the headlines should embarrass us. Because it’s hard to believe that, in 2021, discussion of female health is only just moving from hushed conversation to clarion call. It’s time health comms found its voice.

The world is witnessing a surge of communications powered by the people.

Whether they’re promoting everyday brands or social justice, campaigns are putting "real people" centre stage – deferring to them as champions and giving them voice to tell it how it is.

But it’s a strategy that’s not adopted enough in women’s health. Social awkwardness about women’s bodies means truthful female perspectives are too often silenced or sanitised.

The trend is the underbelly of a silent sexism that has littered healthcare’s history. According to a new book – Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn – a male-dominated medical establishment has mistreated women for centuries, stigmatising the female body, branding women as hysterical and mansplaining procedures with cold condescension. Naga Munchetty’s nightmare isn’t new.

Medical sexism is everywhere. Today, 70 per cent of the world’s health workforce are women – but only 25 per cent are in senior roles. Campaigns on issues like menstrual bleeding, post-natal depression or endometriosis are routinely restricted – one was banned from the Oscars just 12 months ago. And in parts of the world, tampons are still taxed as luxury items.

According to the BMJ, even PPE is sexist – it’s made for men and doesn’t fit women. But arguably the worst fit with modern times is the stigma that has conditioned women to cover their mouths and mask their emotions around female health.

Make no mistake, comms is our way out of the dark ages. But it’s in our hands to help women speak up and healthcare listen. To make this work we must approach things differently. Women don’t just want to be heard, we want to be involved. We want to shape decisions, co-create solutions, take ownership for change.

That means rewiring comms so women aren’t just advocates, they’re leaders – writing the narrative, telling it as it is.

It’s why trusted partnership – through authentic engagement and co-creation – is key to female empowerment in health.

If we’re to progress to a world where tampons aren’t taboo, we must get over our embarrassment, hand women the microphone – and give female health the voice it deserves.

Claire Gillis is chief executive of VMLY&Rx


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