Avoidance and ignorance: Mid-life women and the menopause at work

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A byrne·dean colleague of mine - a senior consultant, who is a woman - recently told me about a conversation she had with a high-level businessperson from a successful organisation that was hiring.

This businessperson explained that their ideal candidate is someone who is dynamic, talented, dedicated and enthusiastic. As the topic of menopause had come up earlier they added  ‘When we can get that, why then would we hire a menopausal single mum? What could they add?’

We can imagine the image of the menopausal single mum that they had in their head.

My colleague refrained from pointing out that by their definition, she wouldn’t get a look in.

Of course, it would never have crossed this businessperson’s mind, because my colleague is a talented, enthusiastic and inspirational leader who works incredibly hard and goes over and beyond what her clients expect of her (she’ll be embarrassed by this description, but it’s true). She also happens to be a single mum who is experiencing menopause.

Failing some of the most valuable people in the workforce

People experiencing the menopause are being routinely discriminated against. Through prejudice in the hiring process, like the above example, and also when being managed - by not being given the understanding and support they need. According to a report by BUPA to the House of Commons in 2021, an alarming number—up to 900,000 women—left their jobs due to lack of support during menopause.

Sadly, many organisations are, often without any deliberate ill-intent, failing some of their most loyal and experienced workers. Not to mention the fastest-growing demographic within the UK workforce. Many of our key workers, including 50% of nurses in the UK, are over the age of 50. They’re knowledgeable and they have years of expertise. We need them. But we’re losing them.

Anyone going through a difficult time in their personal life knows the difference a supportive boss can make. When we don’t get that support, it impacts us negatively; leaving us  vulnerable, alone, and exposed. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see how this can dent confidence, wellbeing, health, and ultimately performance.

Colleagues and managers have significant ability to change things, so that women experiencing menopause feel better-supported and can come in and do their best work without having to worry about being stereotyped or sidelined.

Why do many organisations struggle to support women through the menopause?

A lot of ignorance still shrouds menopause in the workplace. Take the comment made to my colleague.

Stereotypes, rife with inaccuracies, cloud the issue and perpetuate misunderstanding. And our brains love stereotypes; they help us make sense of the unfamiliar. And often they let us down. The menopause is a case in point.

A recent Harvard Business Review study revealed that older women face a disproportionate level of negative stereotypes. This includes being labelled with derogatory terms like 'strident' and 'harpy’ far more than their male counterparts. Unfortunately, many women internalise these societal biases, making an already psychologically challenging time even harder.

We must challenge ourselves on how we see older women. Society, media, our education system have a lot to answer for.  

What should I do if I’m not being supported?

Firstly, don’t believe the stereotypes - they are constructions which don’t serve you or society. Importantly, they are inaccurate. Don’t let them stop you speaking up and seeking support.

Remember too that the menopause does not define you. It is a life transition that may be impacting on you, but it is not all there is to you. Remind yourself that you have skills and experience which are needed. And if you need reasonable adjustments and support at this time, your workplace should  provide them. It could find itself in difficult territory legally if it doesn’t. You don't have to suffer in silence.

Start by checking if your workplace has a menopause policy. Astonishingly, 88% of women surveyed in the 2022 Gen-M Invisibility Report were unaware of their workplace policies. Knowledge is power, and understanding your rights can give you the confidence to initiate that conversation.

Your workplace might offer resources like an Employee Assistance Program or a confidential health or advice line. Don’t hesitate to tap into these invaluable resources for further advice on what to do next.

Next - particularly if you find it daunting to speak up - remember that you are not alone in this journey. Identify your allies - be it a supportive colleague, an understanding HR contact, or a mental health first aider. Reach out to those who can lend a compassionate ear.

If you've spoken up but your employer isn’t taking your concerns seriously, don't back down. Document your discussions and follow up with a polite email to create a paper trail.

Your employer has legal obligations, not only to provide a safe working environment but one which is free of discrimination.  This is a complex area and you should seek trusted legal advice if in doubt.

While the menopause is not a ‘protected characteristic’ in and of itself, age, disability and sex are, and tribunals are seeing a growing number of discrimination cases brought under these headings which include examples of unfair treatment or harassment because of menopause.

Remember, your well-being matters, and you deserve respect in the workplace. Don’t shy away from suggesting adjustments that could make a significant difference. You don't have to sacrifice your career aspirations or opportunities at this time in your life.

How can we encourage our workplaces to be better?

We know that policy change - and the behaviour change that follows - are driven by how people feel.  

So, we need to tackle the fear and embarrassment around menopause – they are a blocker making it uncomfortable for both employers and employees to broach this natural life transition. Training and increased awareness can quickly make a difference. When we start talking about something, we can start to take the fear away.

Moreover, research has shown time and again that age diversity within the workplace is not just a moral imperative, but a strategic advantage. Organisations embracing diverse age groups tend to perform better, benefiting from a wealth of perspectives and ideas.

On the flip side, perceived age discrimination results in lower job satisfaction and engagement, sowing seeds of discontent and disconnection among employees. Perhaps recognising the business argument will help some leaders to take this more seriously.

By shying away from addressing menopause in the workplace, organisations unknowingly demoralise a broader spectrum of people than they might realise.

It's not just about menopausal women; it's about fostering an inclusive environment that values every individual, regardless of their age or life stage.

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