LONDON — “When I first started talking about menopause, it was really a repulsive issue to an awful lot of the opposite sex, and indeed my own sex,” Mariella Frostrup, journalist and broadcaster, women’s advocate, and founder of The Menopause Mandate told PRovoke Media’s EMEA Summit at the Ham Yard Hotel this week.

Frostrup, speaking in conversation with PRovoke's EMEA editor Maja Pawinska Sims, was sharing her personal health journey during a conversation on “Women’s Health: Turbo Charging Change,” sponsored by Weber Shandwick.

Rachael Pay, Weber Shandwick’s president of health for EMEA, introduced the session with what she called “a rather grim statistic. The World Economic Forum predicts that we are still 169 years away from gender parity. Women's health is a story of contradictions. Women are living longer, but more likely to live with illness or disability, at risk of the same conditions, but with poorer outcomes. Women are speaking up without feeling heard. They are in need of information, but struggling to find it. It's time for change.

“I think one of the things we need to really do is to stop looking at this challenge as though it is an issue that we are solving for women, because this is an issue that we are really solving for the whole population. With healthy women, we create a healthy planet. We want to drive a call to action to all of you as part of the industry to really do more, to play a bigger part, and to be much more intentional in the way in which we are putting women at the heart of health.”

Frostrup’s personal story illustrated the challenges of centering women in discussions of healthcare.

“It started when I stumbled blindly into perimenopause,” she said, after a career during which she had confronted issues at every stage of her life, including being told that “breastfeeding was inconvenient” to her filming schedule. “I was about 48 and I spent two years suffering from the most extreme anxiety and insomnia—completely unconnected to anything that was going on in my life—and the two just sort of fed off each other.

“And I really thought I was going mad, and I couldn't work out what the problem was. And I certainly never thought about menopause. First of all, I wasn't 50, which was the sort of date you were given, which was when menopause came. And I also didn't have hot flushes. And that, to me, was the only symptom that I recognized in terms of menopause.”

When her issues were finally diagnosed as perimenopause, “I was just so furious that there could be something that every single woman on the planet is going to experience and yet nobody was talking about. And, you know, all my life, for better or for worse, I've been quite outspoken and the idea that something is unspeakable just makes me want to say it more and more. And so I started talking about menopause everywhere and it was really a repulsive issue to an awful lot of the opposite sex, and indeed my own sex, and the level of ignorance just drove me to want to find out more, discover why there was all of this shame and embarrassment and indeed ignorance.

“Because honestly, it's not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is going through something that you don't understand and don't have the tools or the support to navigate.”

The issue, she said, was historically, there has been a cultural emphasis on “women's purpose being fertility and the absence of purpose being post-fertility, despite the fact that most of us now live into a age where we may live longer post-fertility than we spend going through our sort of procreative period.”

She agreed that progress had been made, but also questioned whether it was sufficient, recounting speaking engagements with companies that claimed to have forward-facing policies around menopause, menopause mentors in the officer, “and then you go into the loo afterwards, and women will pop out of the cubicle, it's all rubbish, they're doing nothing.”

Frostrup also called out the media, which often places sensationalism ahead of fact-checking: “So the minute there's a headline, let's say, about menopause that's positive, you get the Daily Mail commissioning an article with a woman arguing negatively. We're talking about women's health in a world where really the objectification of women and the sort of sexualization of women in the media has actually increased rather than decreased despite all of the campaigning that so many groups have done.”

Responsible journalism, she said, is “absolutely essential” but consumers too need to become more aware of where information is coming from and whether it can be trusted. “I'm still not sure about the idea of expecting things for free and expecting them to be accurate. I don't know if we don't need to go back to a model where we pay to know for sure that what we're reading or what we're viewing or what we're listening to has actually been fact-checked.”

As for public relations professionals, Frostrup said, they have an obligation to “present a story in a positive way with all of the facts and data that support it. That's how you change hearts and minds and cultures. If you're in a position where you're providing information and conceiving stories, then actually you're in a very powerful position, perhaps more powerful than you’ve ever been. And with that power, you know, comes great responsibility.”

Neil Johnson, executive director of the Global Heart Hub, then broadened the discussion to broader health issues, where biases still remain.

“I'm not a health professional, so when I started, I knew nothing about cardiovascular disease, so I had to read up about it,” he said. “And I remember reading all the journals which were saying that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and disability across the world. But women, in terms of cardiovascular disease, are understudied, and their cardiovascular health is underrecognized: the amount of women who present with symptoms at A&E and are dismissed as anxiety or some trivial complaint, it’s shocking, because the consequences are quite catastrophic.

“There's clearly some bias or inequity in that. And also for some reason, when it comes to treatment, women very often do not receive what is the clinically prescribed or recommended guideline therapy. The biggest cause of death in women is actually cardiovascular disease. More women die of cardiovascular disease than breast cancer.”

Damini Sayal Khosla, managing director of Weber Shandwick Switzerland, said stories like that were the reason the agency has introduced its new Women's Health Indicator, which enables he firm to identify gender gaps in health “because of all of the thousands of data points that we're analyzing across media, society, and policy, and enables us to go back to the clients with data.

"For example, diabetes impacts women more, but when we looked at the data, only 3% of the conversation in diabetes was specifically focused around women. Alzheimer's, it impacts women much more severely, double the impact, but only 9% of the conversation across Europe is specifically focused at women."