It’s time for our sector’s communications to find their voice on women’s health issues ’embarrassing’

You won’t be alone – after all, so-called “women’s issues” are apparently so embarrassing that they’re rarely spoken out loud. But times are changing – maybe.

Earlier this year, a BBC Breakfast presenter described her traumatic experiences installing a contraceptive coil. The viewers of the day were choking on his cornflakes. Yet Naga Munchetty’s honest account has sparked debate about the “shameful taboo” of sharing women’s health concerns. He gave women’s health a much needed profile and closely followed the daring tampons and uteri public relations campaigns that were hugely successful at Cannes.

If all of this escaped you, perhaps you would have stepped back in embarrassment when the headlines hit your timeline? It is not uncommon. But the headlines should embarrass us. Because it’s hard to believe that in 2021, the discussion of women’s health will only turn from a hushed conversation to a bugle call. It is time for health communications to find a voice.

The world is witnessing a wave of people-fueled communications.

Whether promoting everyday brands or promoting social justice, campaigns put “real people” center stage – seeing them as champions and giving them a voice to say who they are.

But it is a strategy that is not sufficiently adopted in women’s health. Social awkwardness about women’s bodies means that true female perspectives are too often silenced or sanitized.

The trend is the belly of a silent sexism that has littered health care history. According to a new book – Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn – a male-dominated medical establishment has abused women for centuries, stigmatizing the female body, branding women as hysterics and deceptive procedures with cold condescension. Naga Munchetty’s nightmare is nothing new.

Medical sexism is everywhere. Today, 70 percent of the world’s health workers are women, but only 25 percent hold managerial positions. Campaigns on issues such as menstrual bleeding, postpartum depression or endometriosis are routinely restricted – one of which was banned at the Oscars just 12 months ago. And in some 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 not suitable for 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, communications are our way out of the Dark Ages. But it’s in our hands to help women speak out and healthcare to listen. For this to work, we need to approach things differently. Women don’t just want to be heard, we want to be involved. We want to shape decisions, co-create solutions, make the change our own.

It means rewiring communications so that women aren’t just advocates, they’re leaders – writing the story, telling it as it is.

This is why a trusted partnership – through genuine engagement and co-creation – is key to empowering women in health.

If we are to move towards a world where tampons are not taboo, we must overcome our embarrassment, give women the microphone and give women’s health the voice it deserves.

Claire Gillis is Managing Director of VMLY & Rx


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