Menopause, contraception & fertility: meet the women eradicating female health taboos

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By Charlotte McEleny | Asia Editor

December 10, 2021 | 9 min read

Whether it’s periods, fertility, menopause or pleasure, women’s health is woefully under-researched, misunderstood in the workplace and lagging in marketing representation. As part of The Drum’s Marketing and the Marginalized Deep Dive, we meet the women using their platforms to change women’s health taboos for the better.

Thanks to authors like Caroline Criado Perez and books like her Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, it is now widely accepted that history hasn’t tried to understand women at all.

This is particularly true for women’s health. In fact, Perez has an entire section called Going to the Doctor, a timely highlight from which is that pregnant women are often left out of research during pandemics, including the 2002-2004 Sars outbreak. She ominously predicts: “Another gender data gap that could have been so easily avoided, and information that will be lacking for when the next pandemic hits.”

Fast forward to the current pandemic and information for pregnant women does seem to be improving, albeit on a reactionary level. The UK Health Security Agency just this week launched a video to urge unvaccinated pregnant women to get the jab, using stories from real women who suffered complications after falling ill during pregnancies.

Course-correcting centuries of willful ignorance toward women’s health is no small task, but a handful of women are taking it on, helping to fast-track the marketing industry into recognizing that change is needed.

Contraception: education and facts

Kate Evans, marketing director of HRA Pharma, which owns women’s contraception brands such as Hana, believes there’s still a way to go before women’s health topics are accepted in a more open way.

“Sadly, we still have a long way to go in society when it comes to women’s health and contraception in particular. For too long, female health topics like menstruation, fertility and menopause have been treated in this ‘hush hush’ way, like it’s somehow embarrassing or unclean despite over half the population experiencing [it]. Things are changing, but we need to see more of these topics being spoken about in the open to help reduce the stigma and make people feel seen and heard,” she says.

HRA Pharma conducted research in 2018, which found 46% of people surveyed had unprotected sex (UPSI) last year. Of these, only 27% took emergency hormonal contraception. This means nearly three-quarters of individuals are risking an unplanned pregnancy. Of those who bought the pill from a healthcare professional, 58% felt embarrassed or awkward accessing the morning after pill and only 11% felt confident.

For contraception, it’s not just stigma that gets in the way, as the category is heavily regulated, according to Evans.

“As the only brand investing in this heavily-regulated category, we felt strongly that we needed to change this taboo. We developed ellaOne’s My Morning After campaign with Havas London, UM and Dirt & Glory Media, which set out to grow the category by normalizing it, removing any associated shame or stigma. We feature authentic situations and people in our campaign assets and invited people to share their own My Morning After stories because taking emergency contraception shouldn’t be treated as a mark of behaving irresponsibly when, in reality, the opposite is true,” she explains.

Fertility: emotion and empathy

Where contraception needs education, the way society, industry and marketing campaigns tackle fertility needs more emotion and empathy. Alice Almeida is managing director of The Amber Network, an organization she set up to help women going through IVF after finding that many women found the experience lonely.

What she believes is missing from both workplace discussions and external representations of fertility issues is the fact that it’s an enormous strain on mental health, as it puts pressure on finance and relationships and is not a guarantee of success.

“Research I conducted in January this year [with] 150 IVF patients found one of the most common feelings to come up was a feeling of isolation and loneliness – feelings I know all too well as that’s exactly what I felt going through it too. Women want to meet other women who are going through this, and they want to read their stories as it helps ‘normalize’ their own story. Infertility impacts one in six Australian couples, but you feel like it’s only happening to you. I am determined to break through that feeling and connect the women and the stories together to make people feel less alone and less of a failure,” she explains.

With people in most societies electing to have children when they are more financially responsible later in life, the normalization of fertility treatment and IVF needs to speed up.

Menopause: research and representation

What the figures around contraception and IVF tell us is that women’s health issues are not the issues of a marginalized community, they’re the issues of mainstream society.

This insight is most acute when looking at menopause. Just in the UK, around 15 million women are going through a stage of menopause right now. Yet this issue remains taboo and under-represented both in front of and behind the camera.

Helen Normoyle left a career running marketing at brands including DFS and Boots to launch My Menopause Centre, which aims to use scientific evidence-based information to raise the issues caused by ignoring this mainstream women’s health issue. For example, menopause has forced around 1 million women in the UK to retire early due to the incredible strain this biological change puts on women’s physical and mental health.

“I passionately believe it’s about getting the right representation behind the camera and in front of the camera. Behind the camera, there’s a lot of data out there that points to the fact that there aren’t enough middle-aged women in the marketing industry. To be honest with you, we don’t need the data because we just need to look around where we work or the meetings that we have,” she shares.

She says working cultures need to be changed and led from the top to be more age-inclusive, and highlights broadcaster Channel 4 as one of the brands taking this seriously with policy and change, as well as commissioning TV shows to take the subject to a wider audience.

In terms of what marketers can do in front of the camera, the starting point, according to Almeida, is research.

“Women need to be listened to, and I mean all women, not just young women. Those women who dread seeing their period (no happy star jumps because of an amazing new tampon), women who have conditions that impact their everyday lives (thanks to conditions such as endometriosis), women who are struggling to deal with life at the moment, such as juggling a career, being a wife or being a mum, and women who have lost their identity as they are trying so hard to fit a mold that the marketing industry constantly portrays. Only research can tell you exactly what women want to see, so as an industry we need to stop assuming we know and actually ask them,” she says.

While women’s health issues have been written into hushed tones by a historic lack of research and attention, female marketers, including Evans, Almeida and Normoyle, are changing this for future generations. They are putting representation on the agenda, creating communities, and educating society and industry on these important issues that impact a majority of people in society.

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