In 2017, the British Government Equalities Office reported that “significant numbers of working women experience problems at work as a result of individual symptoms ... The evidence also paints a consistent picture of women in transition feeling those around them at work are unsympathetic or treat them badly, because of gendered ageism.”
The U.K. has approximately 4 million employed women between 45 and 55, accounting for more than 25% of all women in the workforce—the largest cohort. So, you might think that this sort of affliction in the workplace might be protected by law. It is, after all, both an occupational health and equality issue.
But menopause is sadly not covered by the 2010 Equalities Act, which deals with protected characteristics in the workplace (among other things). What is covered: pregnancy and maternity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, sex, age and disability. You could argue that menopause is covered by age, sex and disability, but it’s discomforting for it to be so vague—and it’s why there is a huge push to get menopause formally categorized.
A couple of years ago, I started experiencing menopausal symptoms. It was insidious and gradual but became increasingly problematic to keep hidden. I felt that I needed to understand more—about the symptoms, the biology and why there is such a stigma. More importantly, I felt I needed to talk about it, for my own sanity and also because the stigma will fade only if talking about menopause becomes as normal as talking about pregnancy.
However, that’s easier said than done.
Male supervisors are often uncomfortable talking about women’s issues, and women are reluctant to reveal any inadequacy for fear of judgement or retribution. As Brits, we are disciplined, self-controlled and unemotional, stoical and stiff upper-lipped. There’s a crisis, just pop the kettle on. We keep smiling and waving, or, at the very least, only slightly awkwardly staring into the middle distance.
But this pointless taboo can be addressed only by acknowledging such behavior is not a badge of honor; it’s repressed, regressive and damaging to business. If leaders truly want to lead, they need to create open and inclusive working environments that offer care and support to their staff. And if they want to retain talented, experienced and dynamic women, they not only need to have menopause on the radar—they need to have it in the spotlight.
Developing strong menopause policies and robust support strategies isn’t just good emotional quotient, it’s good business sense. It will create better workplaces for everyone—male, female or non-binary—affected by “the change.” It will help the gender pay gap, it will help diversity and it will help business.
Here are some ways to begin the shift in mindset:
Acknowledge the challenge
Start by publicly recognizing the challenges that menopausal women face and develop strategies about how they can be supported. It’s important for women to feel that they don’t need to hide their symptoms, and that any discussions will be met with empathy and support.
Create and publicize a menopause policy
There doesn’t need to be loads of research and soul-searching. Both Channel 4 and Dark Horses made menopause policies public for anyone to use, adapt and improve. Make sure the policy is for everyone, not just for women, as employees of all ages and genders need to understand more about it, as they will inevitably come across menopausal women—as colleagues, clients, suppliers, friends and family. But a policy on its own is not enough.
Ensure that line managers understand their role in delivering good working practices. They need to be prepared to make accommodations and aware of the easy adjustments and small tweaks that can make a significant difference. These include a safe environment to bring up any challenges their staff are facing—how long they can concentrate, what impact physical symptoms might have on them. It’s good to be able to agree some basics, so there is no guilt or feelings of underdelivery, including working from home/flexible working, condensed or shorter hours, desk fans, cameras off and so on.
Champion menopause support
Hold a menopause workshop; there are plenty of great organizations that don’t cost a fortune and make it an engaging and interactive experience. Appoint a menopause champion. Commit to paying for hormone replacement therapy treatment for staff.
Menopause symptoms are wide and varied and sometimes challenging to cope with. But structured support and good management can make a huge difference. Let’s really try to stop losing women each year to this. Let’s change “the change.”
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