The menopause stigma can hamper women’s working lives, but companies express fear and uncertainty about what they should do to support employees experiencing it. Rikia Birindelli-Fayne writes that the answer is to have a menopause strategy to support women at the peak of their careers.
The menopause has been brushed under the office rug for too long. Businesses are losing talented senior women just when they should be at the peak of the careers, because they feel there is no support for them at this life stage. It is staggering that the menopause affects at least half the population, but conversations have only become commonplace in the last couple of years, and the UK is leading the way.
Speaking with companies across Europe, we hear curiosity about the menopause but also fear and uncertainty about what they should do to support employees experiencing it. The stigma is a real barrier, but there is also some pushback from women. They do not want another obstacle thrown in their path seemingly justifying why women are not suited to the workplace.
Many women suck up in silence, but this should no longer be the expectation from workplaces. The majority of women experience perimenopause and menopause between 45 and 55 years. Emerging at the intersection of age and gender, the menopause is a particularly difficult time for women, who already face more severe age-based discrimination in the workplace than men, a concept known as gendered ageism.
For instance, one study found that women under 45 were almost twice as likely to be called back for a second interview than older women. Yet, women over 50 are the fastest-growing part of the UK workforce, while in the US, women aged 45 – 64 years make up almost a fifth (17%) of its workforce.
When the average age of a CEO is 56, women experiencing the menopause as well as gendered ageism are facing fundamental barriers in their career progression.
The menopause can also exacerbate the gender pension gap. OECD data in Europe reveals that pension payments to women aged 65 and over are 25% less than for men, rising to over 40% in Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. This is higher than the gender pay gap. Reasons for this include women often working in lower paid occupations, working part-time during their career and taking breaks to look after children or other family members. The fact that the menopause hits just at the point where many women are at their highest earning potential is a double whammy.
According to The Fawcett Society, one in ten employed women in the UK will leave their work because of menopause symptoms. Over one in four (44%) women also said their ability to work had been affected.
The menopause is a life stage that affects physical and mental health, and workplaces should address it as such. From synthetic work uniforms causing women discomfort with hot flushes to presentations being affected by ‘brain fog’, women’s experiences of menopause at work will be different and unique to the individual. However, a company’s lack of support can leave women feeling they have no choice but to quit their job.
Building a successful menopause strategy should be a priority for all organisations: from normalising the conversation; to integrating menopause into other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programmes. Making simple adjustments can make a big difference. There are many reasons why it is time for all organisations to put in place a menopause strategy and not least because it’s the right thing to do:
Integrate the menopause into existing DEI programs, offering accommodations like flexible leave, hours, and work location options.
Introduce a menopause policy focused on normalising the conversation and eliminating stigma, including workshops, seminars, and training for employees. To demonstrate care and inclusion, leaders should talk openly about the menopause and communicate the support that is available. Activities to raise awareness could include regular seminars to train and educate all employees or a dedicated chat room, for example. Having a proactive approach to raising awareness and sharing information can reduce stigma and ensure that individuals know where and how to get help.
Provide physical and emotional support for employees experiencing symptoms, like added health care services; counselling; mindfulness sessions; easy access to the washroom; fans; cool water; breathable clothing; adjustments for sick leave; flexible work arrangements; and help and advisory services.
A policy should be sensitive to a woman’s personal circumstances, as not all women will want to go through their manager. Give them a place to go and access to resources, respecting their confidentiality. Losing valuable and experienced talent is costly for organisations and totally unnecessary. It is also a devastating blow for women who want to continue in the workplace, but feel their place is untenable. These women should not be consigned to the menopause scrapheap.
By implementing thoughtful and compassionate measures around menopause, organisations are acknowledging the life experiences of employees and supporting them through this life stage, while also helping them to retain and strengthen the pipeline to senior leadership.