Invisible diseases are another obstacle for working women

PERSPECTIVE | For women like me, the stakes can be high

I stared at my computer screen, trying to hold back tears. I couldn’t think of anything obvious that I did wrong, but just looking at the calendar invite for a one-on-one with my boss incited chest pain.

In college, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an autoimmune disorder that causes hormone imbalances as well as mood-swings, an inability to focus, chronic fatigue and severe anxiety. In this case, it was the latter. For the next hour, I could focus on nothing but the worst case scenarios and stood standby for a panic attack, praying my colleagues, or my manager, wouldn’t notice.

For any woman, healthy or not, every day is a battle to be the best they can be at work, as bias against female traits in the workplace can lead to unfair wage gaps and minimal opportunities for leadership positions. But for women like me, living and working with a disease that makes us act and feel all the things society tells us we shouldn’t — emotional, weak, and in many cases, physically absent — the stakes are much higher.

Source: University of Massachusetts

Of course, both men and women suffer from so-called silent diseases. A University of Massachusetts report found that 10 percent of the U.S. population lives with silent diseases–conditions like mental illness or chronic pain disorders that aren’t immediately obvious to others. But for a working woman who is more commonly diagnosed with these diseases — women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain and mental illness — being tired at work, or performing inadequately or missing days entirely isn’t just a bad look. They perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes.

Silent diseases wreak havoc on the body with symptoms that, when displayed by women, could contribute to stereotypes that have long widened the wage gap or created a bottleneck for those looking to rise in leadership.

A college friend’s mother, who now works as a director of a preschool in suburban Pennsylvania, told me she lost a teaching opportunity because she mentioned she had Crohn’s disease during the job interview. Being an inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s requires her to take frequent bathroom breaks, though she usually gets another teacher to cover for her.

“[They] couldn’t figure how it would work,” she told me over email.

A friend I went to school with, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that she lost a job just three weeks after starting—around the same time her Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) flared up.

“I had a scheduled colonoscopy on my third week of work which I told them about when I was hired and would have to miss two days of work,” she said. “Unfortunately during that time when I started the job, I had to run to the bathroom a lot. I felt like my coworkers were talking about me and that they thought I was not putting in 100 percent.”

Two days after she returned from her procedure, they let her go. According to them, she wasn’t a right fit for the company.

While these stories are anecdotal — there isn’t quantitative research on how many women struggle with invisible diseases in the workplace — it isn’t far-fetched to assume thatwomen diagnosed with these diseases experience higher rates of discrimination.

Women with reproductive silent diseases, like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis — which affects 5 million women in the U.S. alone — arguably face even bigger obstacles. They not only have to navigate the workplace with painful conditions, but the taboo that comes along with them.

Elyse Levandowski, a 28-year-old from Pennsylvania, said that she tells her boss she has a stomach ache when her endometriosis flares up.

“I told my one male supervisor about my surgery and exactly what was going on and he replied by telling me he broke up with his old girlfriend because she had something similar to me, and he couldn’t be with someone who might be infertile.”

Rachel Schallom, an editor at the Wall Street Journal in New York City, agrees that living with endometriosis makes work much harder to navigate. Every day is unpredictable. One day, she’ll wake up feeling fine. Another, really sick, which can range from extremely painful periods to excessive bleeding. Each work day presents obstacles that aren’t even directly work-related.

“I’ve thrown up in every bathroom I’ve ever worked in. I can tell you the best place to throw up in,” she said. “I am taking other people’s feeling into consideration: How can I have this conversation without making you feel uncomfortable? How can you manage meetings, manage people when I’m cramping?”

Nellie J. Brown, a Director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University, says that because there are more men overseeing women in the U.S. workplace, sharing details about reproductive diseases in male manager-female employee conversations can be damaging to women’s careers — especially if they need accommodations to perform to the best of their ability.

“If women talk about something that is uniquely reproductive, it is typical for male managers to view that as a weakness,” Brown said.

Some women forfeit their jobs altogether. Rebecca Houy, a 26-year-old woman with PCOS and epilepsy living in California, told me over email that she’s lost around $ 5,000 in wages from calling out sick from her previous job and quit before getting fired for poor attendance.

“I was working for a large theme park in Orlando that is run by a mouse. I left work in an ambulance due to internal bleeding, stemming from anxiety. When I returned after my last hospital stay, I was issued a reprimand (final written documentation before termination in this case) for attendance,” she said.

But even with laws protecting the rights of those sick or disabled like FMLA and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, whichwas passed to protect against discrimination based on disability status, including in employment, a subconscious bias remains and manifests in subtle ways.

Schallom, for instance, says she has had projects taken away because of her condition.

“They’d say, ‘you know you can’t really handle this.’ I also feel that was a little bit gendered,” she said. “Women, I think it’s more easy to see their outward appearance. I don’t think they would pull projects away from men.”

So how do women rise above? They push through, in a process known as “bias avoidance,” or the act of minimizing personal struggles to maximize career success. But this only perpetuates the problem, according to Dr. Ellen Kossek, a leading expert on women and diversity workplace issues and a chaired professor in the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. It’s one of the reasons she feels that workplace gender diversity is so important.

“It increases the chance women will feel more comfortable disclosing [their illnesses.] Make it more easy,” she said, adding that women are more likely to be involved in cross-hierarchy relationships at work.

Almost as important as diversity: Awareness, acceptance and flexibility from managers of all genders. Not just to make workplace bathroom runs, panic attacks and flexible schedules less likely to stunt women’s careers, but because taking away that pressure is also just downright better for their health.

“If I’m worried about whether or not I can call the doctor [at work], they’re not getting the best productivity out of me,” Schallom said. “It’s better for the company when I’m happy, healthy and at my best. You’re getting the best work.”

This is why when one of my managers asked if there was anything she could do to help me feel more comfortable at work, I opened up to her about my email panic.

“That’s really good to know,” she said. “I had no idea.”

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