FEATURE3 March 2023

How brands can help tackle the gender health gap

Healthcare Inclusion News People Wellbeing

Allie Jennings of Thinks Insight & Strategy explains a recent research project to understand how brands can do more to help address knowledge gaps around women’s health.

Woman seeing doctor

Across the UK there have been considerable efforts to expand conversation around and improve knowledge about women’s health. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ and Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaigns aimed to build women’s confidence and get them moving. Celebrities such as Davina McCall and Molly-Mae Hague are using their voice to bring previously taboo topics – such as menopause and endometriosis – to the national conversation.

However, Thinks Insight & Strategy research, commissioned by social purpose behaviour change agency 23red, shows there is no room for complacency:

  • Women’s health is stigmatised: 48% of women agree that ‘women’s health is stigmatised’ contributing to a sense of shame stifling conversation and leading women to mask or conceal symptoms in public.
  • Understanding of women’s health issues is low: two in five women say they find it difficult to tell what is normal when it comes to their health, meaning they struggle to identify issues at the right time and seek advice.
  • When issues are raised, women report that they are often not taken seriously, dismissed, or made to feel ashamed: women feel they are perceived as dramatic or overly emotional when they seek advice or help.

“I started to have bad periods and had about three or four months of collapsing before I saw a doctor. My partner thought I was exaggerating... I didn’t really speak to my boss up until I had to go to hospital.”

Understanding how to address women’s health is crucial. So, we set out to understand the role brands can play in reducing the gender health gap.

Who did we hear from?

  • Qualitative research with 24 women across various life stages, socioeconomic grades, and ethnicities, to understand the barriers they face to improving their health in-depth and what they want to see from brands in the future.
  • Quantitative research with 2,075 men and women across the UK, to gain a robust measurement of attitudes at a national level.

We found that there is considerable appetite among women for trusted brands to play a role in closing the gender health gap. Our research points to five areas for brands to consider when talking to women and driving change:

  1. Women want to see trusted brands play a role in directing national conversations about women’s health issues. A key barrier women face is the prevailing stigma associated with their health, more and better conversations will help break down the taboo, normalise women’s health conditions and reduce the sense of shame. For example, women praise celebrities talking about miscarriage as they see it helping to normalise an experience which, though relatively widespread, is rarely discussed openly or in public.
  2. Women are most interested in hearing from brands already in the health space. Women assume these brands will have a level of existing knowledge and will trust their intentions. However, women will also trust brands that are authentic and are seen to deliver for women. For example, their track record of offering free bra fittings opens the door for Marks & Spencer to adopt a wider role in relation to women’s health.
  3. Women are most interested in practical advice on symptom-checking and signposting to further support. More than half of women want to hear from brands about how to check their symptoms or when to see a doctor. In the qualitative phase, we heard women describe feeling unsure about a wide range of concerns, including whether their period pain was normal or not; and  how to check their breasts for signs of cancer.
  4. To build trust, storytelling – particularly in relation to products and services – must be realistic. Brands should avoid over-exaggerating the impacts of their products or sharing overt sales pitch communications. Both approaches will cause brands to lose credibility in the eyes of women.
  5. Brands need to be seen to put women’s needs ahead of profits. Internally, brands must practice what they preach by championing women in their workplace via health friendly policies and seeing women in positions of leadership. Externally, brands should go beyond self-promotion or raising awareness and drive genuine change to address the gender health gap.

“[Brands should be] advocating for women’s health, talking about policy and education. Talking about something bigger than the product they’re selling.”

Women are receptive to receiving advice from brands that can prove themselves to be authentic and are able to communicate in a meaningful, evidence based and appealing way. It is certain that women have specific preferences in terms of how receptive they are to advice and there is real appetite for a changed approach. Women value advice from brands that can demonstrate that they are advocating for improved conversations around women’s health and are eager to see the gender health gap close.

Allie Jennings is associate director at Thinks Insight & Strategy