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This article was co-authored by Professor Jo Brewis of the University of Leicester, Dr Vanessa Beck of the University of Bristol, Dr Andrea Davies of the University of Leicester and Dr Jesse Matheson of the University of Leicester.
In a recent contribution to Academics Corner, Laura Doering and Sarah Thebaud write: “Despite persistent diversity initiatives and an ever-growing sense of inclusion and tolerance in the workplace, research suggests that gender stereotypes still disadvantage women at work”.
Having undertaken a government research project on the impact of the menopause transition on women’s economic participation - i.e. working outside the home - in the UK, we couldn’t agree more.
Menopause is the point in a woman’s life when her periods stop for good. It is a normal biological phenomenon which all women experience. Menopause transition is the ‘run up’, as it were, to menopause itself.
The Stages of Reproductive Health Workshop defines transition as characterised by changes in a woman’s menstrual cycle and her menstrual flow, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, mood swings, hot flushes and night sweats.
Women also have very different experiences of transition. Some find it easy to cope with, whereas others endure more challenging symptoms. About 25% of women have very debilitating symptoms indeed.
Official government statistics tell us that more and more women are working now, and that they are retiring later in life. Something of the order of 75% of women over 50 are employed outside the home in the UK.
In turn, this means many more women will experience menopause transition whilst they are working, a demographic trend which shows no sign of slowing down.
What did our research and report find?
We reviewed 104 English language publications on the relationship between menopause transition and work, from January 1990 to March 2016. The report discusses:
- the extent to which menopause transition is a problem for working women, and those who leave the workforce;
- the effect of transition symptoms on women’s economic participation;
- whether women’s and employers’ attitudes to transition make a difference;
- how women employees in transition can be better supported; and
- the likely economic costs of transition.
We also identify gaps in the evidence base, like the lack of studies of women in manual or lower-paid occupations.
Transition, our report suggests, can cause considerable difficulties at work for women with bothersome symptoms.
Hot flushes, for example, are physically unpleasant and can make women feel less professional. Difficulty focusing and memory problems, equally, could make workload harder to manage and affect a woman’s confidence. Mood swings can also be an issue, especially for female managers, as they may affect decision making.
And symptoms might, in addition, mean women need to take time off work. On the other hand, work can make symptoms worse, where women have to wear uniforms made from synthetic fabrics, work in offices with no temperature control facility or face stressful deadlines, for example.
To make matters worse, working women report feeling unable to speak up about their symptoms to their managers and colleagues, because they are embarrassed, fear being stereotyped or even criticized, mocked or harassed.
Menopause is, especially when we compare it to other stages of a woman’s reproductive life like pregnancy and maternity, a taboo subject in the workplace – although legislation like the UK’s Equality Act (2010) makes employment discrimination on the basis of gender or age illegal.
Not a women’s issue?
So why do we argue that menopause is not a women’s issue?
After all, we have just established that many women suffer from symptoms which make work (and indeed life outside of work) difficult, and in some cases may mean they can’t continue to work at all.
But – and this is crucial - it is not just women who are affected. If women’s performance at work is negatively affected because of their symptoms or they have to quit work altogether, there are obvious economic implications for their employers.
This can also mean colleagues taking on additional workload or spending time supporting inexperienced replacement staff. Family members may have to manage a lower household income if a woman leaves her job or to cope with her mood swings. And society more generally could lose out because of increased demands on medical and welfare systems and reductions in Gross Domestic Product.
The good news, though, is that HR managers can make the workplace much more menopause-friendly.
The relevant initiatives are in many cases inexpensive and easy to introduce. These include adjustments to the physical workplace, such as introducing uniforms made from natural fibres, allowing women to sit by windows which open and providing them with USB fans. Cold drinking water is also a huge help in managing hot flushes.
Absence policies should explicitly include transition symptoms as a legitimate reason for sick leave. Moreover, employees in the UK already have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements, and women in transition can benefit from working from home, for instance, on bad days or when they have had a poor night’s sleep.
Equality and diversity training for managers in particular is also recommended, so they understand more about the menopause, its symptoms and their effects, and can support their female team members better as a result.
These mechanisms, including those which are more complex or costly to implement, will in all likelihood only be needed by individual mid-life women for a short period of time at work. However, it is also important that a range of mechanisms is available, given huge variability in transition experiences.
In closing, we quote Laura Doering and Sarah Thebaud once more. In their analysis of gender bias at work, they argue: “This is an issue which often falls by the wayside of other management and HR initiatives, but tackling it is a business imperative for both men and women”.
The same is true of the menopause, and to the business imperative we add the legal imperative, as well as the importance of ensuring quality of working life for mid-life women, so they can continue to work for as long as they wish without being negatively affected by this natural and inevitable process.