Cool-down rooms, desk fans, relaxation of dress codes. These are just some of the suggestions from employers to deal with the latest buzzy workplace topic: menopause.
So many companies have eagerly told me in the past year about their new menopause champions raising awareness about brain fog, hot flushes, anxiety and sleeplessness. One recent email informed me that menopause is sexy, while another wrote about putting the “men back into menopause”, to encourage senior male executives to talk about the topic in the workplace. I’m tempted to filter my emails to stop the hormonal tide.
It’s not only employers but also politicians. Last week, the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee published a report advocating for a menopause ambassador “to help to introduce model workplace policies covering how to request reasonable adjustments, advice on flexible working and sick leave, and building a supportive culture”. October has been designated menopause month by the World Health Organization.
All these initiatives and awareness-raising are driving me round the twist! Not because I believe menopause should be shrouded in secrecy. On the contrary, conversations encourage women to get help. The rock star Rod Stewart, no less, spoke recently of desperately trying to find information to help his wife. “I googled menopause so much when she was going through it, she was in a fragile situation,” he said.
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Nor do I doubt the stress and misery that symptoms can cause, or want to diminish their impact on work. I’ve spoken to countless women whose jobs have been destabilised by low moods, sleeplessness, or inability to remember familiar words. These can push “highly skilled and experienced” women out of work, the Women and Equalities report found, with “knock-on effects on the gender pay gap, pension gap and the number of women in senior leadership positions”.
But I fear organisations are using hormones as a smokescreen for ageism. All the desk fans, cool-down rooms and ambassadors do nothing to address the lack of career development — or worse, discrimination — on offer for women (or men for that matter) in their late 40s, 50s and 60s.
A report last year into financial services by Standard Chartered, the bank, indicates other elements than physical symptoms at play. It found that as women got older they felt less able to be “heard when they make a suggestion or offer an opinion”. In addition, menopausal women do not feel valued in the workplace — an issue, they noted, that is also experienced among older men. In other words, ageism. Research by the CBI, Britain’s largest employers group, shows that two-fifths of employers admit to being less likely to recruit people over 50, and about a third would be prepared to retrain staff over that age.
Menopause may well affect confidence. But you know what else does? Feeling invisible at work and that your views don’t matter. Margaret Hodge, who became a Labour MP at 50, once told me: “I get angry at the youth cult.”
Organisations’ attempts to close the gender pay gap typically focus on developing young women. For good reason: after all, employers want to ensure a pipeline of talented women. However, all too often senior women are ignored.
For some, their menopause might coincide with a time in their life when they have more ambition than ever, particularly if their children have left home. The painter Rose Wylie, for example, became an artist to watch in her 70s: she paused her career to raise her children, to start again in middle-age. Others may find their nests are very much not empty. Physical exhaustion is part of the territory for parents of young children dealing with babies who don’t sleep, or toddlers who threaten to lurch into oncoming traffic. But teenage kids can be emotionally taxing — as can ageing parents.
Andy Briggs, group chief executive of insurer Phoenix Group and government business champion for older workers, says that “women are disproportionately affected by some of the challenges and discrimination faced by an ageing workforce — research has shown that women have a 50-50 chance of providing unpaid care to a relative by the time they are 46 years old.” This means, he says, that many take unpaid time off work or leave their jobs to accommodate these responsibilities. While the pandemic has made flexible working more common, he says, it is far from universal and rigidity can be “a barrier” that disproportionately affects women.
When human resources officers bang the drum for menopause awareness, the danger is that we medicalise a knotty double problem: employers’ inability to understand their staff’s lives — and an unwillingness to tackle ageism.