Menopause stigma is still a reality in the workplace: it’s time for a change

In our last post, we talked about a number of ways that employers can work towards building a gender inclusive workplace. One of those ways was to address menopause stigma at work. As we will discuss in today’s post, the subject of menopause is still felt to be “taboo” and is often not discussed or supported in the workplace. 

Although we use the words “woman” and “women” throughout this post, we appreciate that not every person who will experience menopause identifies as a woman. 

In December 2022, Statistics Canada reported that there are more than 10 million women over the age of 40 in Canada. Menopause Foundation Canada (MFC) reports that, by 2025, more than 5 million of these women will be experiencing menopause. And Kate Ryder, Founder & CEO of the Maven Clinic, notes that women going through menopause is one of “the fastest growing cohorts in the workforce.”  

While most women will reach menopause between ages 45 and 55, 1 in 100 will experience symptoms before 40, and 1 in 1000 before 30. Despite these statistics, menopause isn’t talked about in the workplace. While this is attributable in large part to lack of understanding/personal experience, more than anything it’s due to the ongoing stigma and cultural taboo of menopause. As the vast majority of women will go through menopause, this stigma makes no sense and only serves to do more harm, stacked on top of ageism and gender inequity in the workplace.

As noted by MFC, 46% of women surveyed felt unprepared for the impact of menopause, 40% felt alone in dealing with it, and more than half still believe it’s a taboo subject. Some of their primary concerns were that they’d be seen as old, inadequate, and unable to do their jobs. The survey also found that 75% of women don’t feel they have support at work and/or their employers have no idea of what the impacts are – particularly in the workplace. On this front, Circle In’s research found that 83% of women said their work was negatively affected, 58% said it became more challenging, 48% lacked confidence in their work, and 46% felt stressed by having to hide symptoms.  

Consider, too, that the average age of CEOs in BC is 54, the vast majority being male (only 3 out of 100 CEOs on the BC Business list are women). This data suggests, as reported by Professor Alicia A. Grandey, that when most folks reach a senior management/leadership role, they’re at the peak of their careers. Now, overlay menopause on that for nearly half the working population. With other forms of gender inequity already playing their parts, when women don’t have the support for a very real and unavoidable stage of life, is it any wonder that women are significantly lagging behind men in the leadership arena?

How menopausal colleagues are viewed in the workplace

Sadly, menopause stigma isn’t only experienced/felt by women going through menopause. In two separate Harvard Business Review (HBR) studies, employees were asked to describe their impressions of a menopausal woman, a middle-aged woman, and a middle-aged man, in addition to commenting on a scenario of a woman experiencing menopause symptoms at work. In both studies, the employees described the menopausal woman as less confident, less emotionally stable, and less competent.

However, in another study, it was found that when women felt comfortable acknowledging what they were experiencing (e.g., when having a hot flash), they were seen as more confident and more of a leader than when they tried to explain it away or hide it. As noted by HBR, while that may seem to go against the prevailing stigma clearly seen in other studies, it would appear that – as is often the case where leadership is concerned – being honest and vulnerable positively impacts how a leader’s confidence is perceived by those around them.  

Our own experiences of menopause

As a group of primarily women, many who are over 50, we’ve experienced a range of perimenopause and post-menopause symptoms. As for any aspect of our health and our life experiences in general, our symptoms have varied. Some have ‘sailed through’ rather seamlessly, whereas, for others, work and work-related situations were impacted by symptoms. These ranged from insomnia, hot flashes, dizziness, and extremely heavy menstruation to brain fog/reduced concentration, memory loss, and anxiety – in addition to, for some, trying to hide/feeling ashamed of symptoms. Additionally, although the average age of menopause is between 45 and 55, even within our small cohort of women, three started experiencing symptoms in their late 30s or early 40s, and a few are still experiencing symptoms in their late 50s. We hope this highlights the extent of diversity of the menopause experience.

It also struck us that, despite being a close-knit group of women, HR colleagues, coaches and friends, we weren’t even talking about it amongst ourselves. Considering it even closer, we realized no one was. Many of us hadn’t talked about it with our friends, and not one of our clients (many of whom are women of this demographic) had mentioned it. Contrast that with how often we’ve heard people openly (and often graphically) discussing their COVID-19 symptoms with just about anyone who’d listen.

One Jouta team member recalls that, early on in her career, she had a ‘that’s-not-going-to-happen-to-me’ mentality. She remembers an older co-worker who suffered significantly from hot flashes, whose face would turn beet red, and who would visibly start sweating profusely, so much she had to keep a fan on her desk. She said everyone used to joke and laugh with that colleague, but realizes now that it likely only made things worse for her – depending on how that ‘joking’ came about. Another team member remembers meeting with a client, sitting in his office while experiencing repeated, intense hot flashes, trying to stay focused, and agonizing over whether he had noticed it.

What can/should employers do to support menopausal women?

As noted in the statistics in this and our last post and given the reality of today’s demographic, millions of working women are/will soon be experiencing the impacts of menopause. For 75% of these women, symptoms will interfere with their daily lives, 25% will have severe symptoms, and 10% will need to stop working as a result. Accordingly, it has been estimated that productivity losses associated with menopause could cost up to $150 billion US per year globally. While that number can be hard to fathom on a smaller, per business scale, the bottom line is that it can be extremely costly for any organization to lose women as a result of not supporting them. And that cost isn’t just about the dollar figure – it’s also about morale, wellness, retention, and business reputation.  

While long overdue, it’s encouraging that there are many more resources and conversations today than even a few years ago – but there’s still an exceptionally long way to go. Employers must start with their own awareness and education, and create a workplace culture where menopause is accepted, normalized, and talked about openly. Appreciating that not every organization has clear role models who can lead the way, as an employer, encourage folks of all genders to assume that role. As for any form of marginalization and stigma, it’s not up to those who are experiencing it to step up. Rather, it’s an obligation for employers to create safe workplaces where women can have honest and open discussions about the realities they’re experiencing. This includes developing associated practices, policies, training, and support mechanisms that acknowledge and normalize symptoms.

As expressed by Deborah Garlick, Director of Henpicked, “as soon as senior leaders start talking about it, it gives permission for everybody to be more open about it.” As she further outlines, these don’t have to be significant accommodations. Rather, they can be as minor as providing desk fans, checking in regularly, providing reading material and resources where possible, and being intentional about where/when you ask for action (i.e., not when passing by in the hallway).

Menopause is a natural and normal part of most women’s lives. If it hasn’t already been a challenging reality for the women in your workplace, it surely will be. It’s time to step up and help make a difference.

Jouta’s HR Consultants can help you develop practices that break down stigma and normalize the reality of menopause.