Menopause is a fact of female life. Every woman will have one, yet both women and men shy away from discussing it. There are many reasons why this is the case. Primarily it is because we apply a series of socially held beliefs which are no longer true or appropriate, most of which are centred around being old.
Culturally we fear Menopause heralds old age. Let’s face it nobody wants to admit to being old.
A century ago, this assumption would have been true. Those women who were born at the turn of the 20th Century, were the first to live long enough as a generation to experience their Menopause. The average life expectancy at the time was 52 and the average age of Menopause was 50-51. Therefore, proportionally, those women were old. Prior to that, if you experienced Menopause you were one of a very small number of women who lived long enough.
Jump forward to the 1970s and 80s and the politically incorrect humour many of us grew up with compounded our view of women of Menopausal age. So far so bad.
The reality of today is that the average age women will experience symptoms is 45 to 55 with the duration somewhere between 4 to 12 years. This means that women will have, with current life expectancy, almost another life again at the point that their Menopause kicks in, and certainly enough time for a second career should they wish it. So much for being old.
With women of Menopausal age being the fastest growing employed demographic in the UK, this generation are the first to experience their Menopause in the workplace.
Women just like men are in their ascendency in their 40s. They are at their most experienced, knowledgeable and valuable to their employer. Which is why it is strange that our historical bias still gnaws at our modern places of work.
Women repeatedly report that they feel uncomfortable raising Menopause as an issue in the workplace for fear that it will negatively affect their career prospects. On the occasion they do, employers often feel unsure how to proceed effectively and empathetically. On both counts it still appears to be the preference that the less said the better.
The danger zone
Most women I speak to only think about having this conversation at the point that their symptoms are affecting their ability to do their work, or that rumours about the changes in their behaviour are circulating. This is critical. If women don’t take control at this point, then it can severely impact their career and everything that depends on it.
If an organisation has got to the point where a woman is being called into HR or her managers office, to discuss the outward signs of her Menopause, then this is an indication of poor organisational communication and a lack of management training. It also suggests that the focus on wellbeing is missing by far the most widespread and significant issue of its kind. Nothing else within this sphere is guaranteed to affect such a large percentage of the working population.
Women need to know where and how to get help. Managers need to be trained in how to have conversations on the subject. The two work hand in hand to ensure women are retained within the organisation and continue to perform well and progress their career.
The critical issue which is rarely discussed when mentioning Menopause. is gender equality and female representation. 10% of all women leave paid employment due to their symptoms, or, rather not being able to discuss them and gain support. That’s 10% of your most talented and capable staff lost at the point that they are at their most valuable. These women are the next members of your senior leadership team, executives and board directors. The loss of women at this juncture informs younger women that they are not valued and that there is no path to the top. They too will leave.
Gender inequality is driven by both actions and inaction.
Relationships sit at the heart of our success both at home and at work. They offer us support and opportunity. They celebrate our successes and commiserate when things don’t go so well. We often don’t even consider them until something challenges them. Menopause is that something.
Women need to retain their relationships across their working landscape. If these are damaged due to misinformation or a lack of awareness, the potential cost is high both to their current status and long-term prospects. There needs to be a culture of psychological and elemental safety that welcomes discussions around this topic. If this is not the case, women’s reticence to discuss things with their colleagues and key influencers increases the potential risk to their careers. The stakes are high.
The first step is to normalise the subject. Women cannot be expected to cross the divide without their employers meeting them halfway. There are multiple benefits to open conversations around Menopause. Managers are empowered and informed, which helps dispel some of the historical discomfort, enabling empathetic conversations. Team members and peers, are able to offer support through understanding. Of course, women themselves feel more able to initiate and continue the conversation.
In addition to this, supportive messaging conveys that women are valued, which ensures the retention of excellent female talent.
The investment needed to reap these benefits is minimal in comparison to the potential cost. It does however require an holistic approach which incorporates management training, policy or guideline revision, specialist support, and the creation of internal support networks and allies. This is, of course, in addition to the favoured one stop, tick-box workshop or lab.
Women recognise when they are valued and invested in. If this is not the case, it’s time to prepare for the exodus of your most brilliant women across all age groups, as they seek employers who will. At a time when industry needs the skills and benefits that women bring to the organisation, can you afford not to invest?
About the author
Kate is an experienced Coach and Change strategist with a specialism in Menopause and Gender Equality. She works with organisations to increase awareness of this life phase, to recognise its pivotal impact on equality across its workforce and representation in senior and executive positions.
She is an internationally published author, her book ‘Your Second Phase – reclaiming work and relationships during and after Menopause’ is available in Europe, North America, South East Asia and Russia. It has also been shortlisted for the Business Book of the Year Award 2021