99% perspiration: the challenge of being a midlife professional woman

Older business woman struggling at work
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Mid-life professional women often have to juggle the pressures of work, child care and ageing parents, all while going through the symptoms of menopause or perimenopause. How can HR offer support and flexibility for these women?

Most companies today are pretty enlightened about the fact that women with children often want to work, often need to work and that special consideration must be given to to allow them to stay employed while raising a family.

But we haven’t talked about what happens after that.

The pressure on midlife women in all aspects of their lives is immense. Most will still have dependent children in the house. At the same time they may have ageing parents who need more and more care. They’re experiencing the symptoms of menopause or perimenopause, which affects their mood, their energy, their general health and their appearance.

And they are often going through something of a midlife crisis or midlife awakening, considering what the second half or final chapter of their professional life is going to look like.

Midlife: the last taboo?

The workplace is generally ignorant of or unsympathetic to any of this. The career ladder was designed at a time when most people who were going to climb it were men.

It doesn’t reflect the stages of a woman’s life. The pressure to maintain an upward trajectory and the lack of many attractive alternatives that still come with the status, respect and salary of a top level job doesn’t reflect the needs of many midlife women.

The risk to your business if you continue to ignore this cohort of highly valuable employees is that many will choose to leave you. Last year The Guardian reported a 67% increase in the number of women over 55 opening business accounts.

These are women with enough creativity, stamina and confidence to go it alone. They’re exactly the sorts of empowered individuals you want on your side. You also risk missing out on the mentoring, wise counsel, stability and expertise that such women provide.

We need to take seriously the culture in our organisations that judges women for allowing their hair, and their body, to age.

Losing such incredible women isn’t the only risk. They may stay with you but be unable to do their best work because of the constraints of the workplace environment and culture.

A colleague of mine has been unable to give presentations in front of the board for a number of months because her hot flushes kick off when she takes to the floor. A friend is putting her career and reputation at risk every time she leaves work early to care for her sick mother. Another woman I know is popping anti-inflammatory pills to manage joint pain (a symptom of menopause) because she doesn’t want anyone to know the discomfort she’s in, or why.

And that brings me to the secrecy and shame. Many companies have been proactive in talking more about mental health. But the menopause, and the midlife crisis that often accompanies it, is still taboo.

13 million women in the UK are going through menopause, which represents a third of the female population. It’s too big a community to ignore.  

It’s time to recognise that the childbearing and child-rearing stage isn’t the only time when a woman needs support from her employer.

Here are some of the issues we need to start taking seriously:

Age discrimination

While age discrimination impacts both men and women there are some strongly held beliefs about women and aging that are not as prevalent for men. We need to take seriously the culture in our organisations that judges women for allowing their hair, and their body, to age.

Stamina and mental health

The menopause takes its toll on a woman’s stamina. 60% of women experience fatigue and low stamina as a result of the menopause. We are very unlikely to say anything about it though. Admitting to feeling tired or in pain is perceived as an admission that we cannot add as much value as a younger woman.

Many menopausal women still have children living at home at the same time as having aging parents.

Anxiety, depression and mood swings are common too. But despite all the mental health campaigns of the past few years, 72% of menopausal women say they feel unsupported at work and 10% have seriously considered giving up work as a result of their menopausal symptoms. 70% of women have not made their employer aware that they are suffering.

The sandwich generation

Many menopausal women still have children living at home at the same time as having aging parents.

Both of my parents are struggling with their health. They rely more and more on my sister and me to be with them, to take them to appointments, check in on them regularly and deal with emergencies.

We are the sandwich generation where weekends are taken up caring for children and parents and Monday comes around all too fast. Weekends are just as hard work as weekdays. The principle that parents need time off to look after their kids is recognised but such a right does not extend to caring for sick or aging parents.

Longer working lives

Retirement doesn’t even offer most of us a way out. It is likely we will be working well in to our 60s and possibly beyond. The workplace offers very few opportunities to take a step away from the cut and thrust of the career ladder whilst still maintaining your status and respect in the business.

This applies just as much to men of course. For a woman though, admitting that you want to reduce your hours or take a different kind of role is seen as buying in to a prejudice you’ve been fighting for your whole life – a belief that women can’t hack it in the high octane world of business.

After years of demanding the same rights it’s very hard to talk about wanting to work differently. We don’t want to give women a bad name. But we don’t want to spend the next 20 years killing ourselves just to make a point.

What can HR do?

Here are a few ideas to help menopausal and mid-life women continue to be valuable members of your organisation:

  1. Be on the alert for subtle age discrimination. As part of your broader diversity and inclusion strategy consider the particular challenges of mid-life and menopausal women. Make it part of the conversation.

  2. Take the mental and physical health of your mid-life and menopausal employees seriously. Listen to your employees and understand their changing needs. Help them to identify ways that they can contribute, maintain status and be respected while also respecting their physical and mental health.

  3. Provide education and information for those who may not be fully aware of what is happening to them and to their colleagues. Recognise that menopause is a unique experience for each individual and therefore unique responses are required.

  4. Extend flexible, remote, part-time and other ways of working to all employees, not just parents of young children. Extend parental leave policies to include anyone caring for sick, aging or dependent relatives.

  5. Create high status, high respect, well-rewarded roles for older employees who wish to step off the conventional career ladder and contribute in new ways.

About Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author, podcaster and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast changing times. You can talk to Blaire about her leadership coaching or find out more about her work at www.thatpeoplething.com

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