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Midlife women face an uphill climb in Canada’s workplaces

June 3, 2024
By Angela Johnson

Credit: Getty Images/DMP

I hope we all recognize there is tremendous value in having women in the workplace. Just in case you’d like a reminder, here are some staggering stats:

A recent report cites operating rooms with more than 35 per cent female anesthesiologists and surgeons are associated with a three per cent reduction in post-operative complications within three months following surgery.

Between 2014 and 2022, the 41 female-led companies in the S&P 500 outperformed their male-led counterparts by as much as three times.

In May, McKinsey Health Institute in collaboration with the World Economic Forum reported a $1 trillion annual boost in the global economy could be realized by 2040 if we close the women’s health gap.

It’s time to address an important issue in our workforce: the underrepresentation and unique challenges of midlife women in the workplace.

The stark reality

Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2023 report revealed a concerning pattern: more women left their employers in 2022 than in 2020 and 2021 combined.

This isn’t just about job changes; it reflects a deeper issue in how we support and value experienced female professionals.

Consider this staggering statistic: although 48 per cent of the Canadian workforce between 40 and 65 were women, their departure rate was 10 and 12 per cent higher than that of men in 2022 and 2021 respectively.

This trend underscores a notable challenge in both recruitment and retention, emphasizing the need to identify and address its multifaceted root causes.

“Flexibility” isn’t just a buzzword

In 2024, the narrative for women’s work-life balance remains dishearteningly stagnant.

Midlife women face a unique set of challenges including the complexities of menopause, the demands of motherhood and responsibilities related to parental care, while addressing family health issues and navigating personal relationships.

Amid all these personal challenges, women frequently find themselves prioritizing the needs of others over their own.

Despite full-time careers, 88 per cent of women still predominantly shoulder the primary responsibilities for household tasks. Additionally, one in five women still feel compelled to prioritize their partner’s career above their own.

This isn’t just about offering flexibility; it’s about fundamentally rethinking how we support our workforce and support the continued rights of women.

The medical knowledge gap and its impact

It’s crucial that we recognize factors beyond the workplace and home can also take a toll.

In her book Doing Harm, Maya Dusenbery highlights a critical issue: the long-standing neglect of women’s unique health needs in medical research.

To quantify this neglect, funding data from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research show only eight per cent of funding is allocated to women’s health research. This lack of funding leads to a substantial knowledge gap in how women’s bodies react to various drugs and medical conditions.

This gap has resulted in gender bias, where women’s health concerns are minimized and appropriate treatments are delayed or diluted. This gender bias in healthcare reflects a systemic issue that workplaces need to recognize and address.

2018 study found stark differences in how men’s and women’s pain is perceived and treated by medical professionals, with men’s being treated as a physical condition and women’s as a mental health condition. Similarly, a UK study showed one-third of women seeking help for menopause-related symptoms were inappropriately offered antidepressants.

A call for action

Canadian women face a health landscape filled with disparities.

Heart failure is 20 per cent more fatal for women than men, and strokes claim 32 per cent more female lives. Particularly troubling is the fact that heart attack symptoms in women often go unrecognized, leading to delayed or inadequate treatment when compared to the treatment offered to men.

In the area of cognitive health, women face disproportionately greater challenges. Women are nearly twice as likely to receive diagnoses of depression or anxiety compared to their male counterparts. Furthermore, Alzheimer’s disease, which represents the most prevalent type of dementia, has a notably skewed impact on women. For every man with Alzheimer’s, there are two women facing the same diagnosis.

These statistics are not just numbers; they represent real challenges that impact women.

Shaping a new norm in workplaces

The UK’s NHS national retention program pilot is a prime example of a successful intervention that effectively minimizes gender inequality and health disparities.

By implementing flexible hours, remote work options, and providing experienced clinical support for menopausal women, a remarkable outcome was achieved across the 23 NHS pilot locations: more than 14,000 staff resignations were averted, signifying a significant decrease in staff turnover.

This model demonstrates the effectiveness of proactive measures and could serve as a blueprint for Canadian employers.

Women with 20 to 30 years of experience seek more than accommodations; they need comprehensive solutions that recognize their contributions and address their unique health challenges.

We must move beyond superficial nods to diversity and inclusion and transform our workplaces into havens of respect, support, and empowerment.

Let’s assess our current health and wellness plans and collaborate with providers to offer services tailored to midlife women’s needs.

The time for change is now – for our businesses, for our communities, and for the generations of women who have paved the way and those who will follow.

Angela Johnson is the CEO and co-founder of sanoLiving, and leads this Canadian women’s midlife virtual health centre pioneering new solutions in women’s health.

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