“Men-oh!-pause”: serious stigmatisation and its implications for leadership diversity and performance

“Men-oh!-pause”: serious stigmatisation and its implications for leadership diversity and performance

by | May 23, 2019 | Physical Wellbeing | 0 comments

These days, most of us are hyper-aware (appropriately so) of the need for more female leaders at the top of organisations.

Quite apart from being significantly under-represented in the exec teams of the world’s largest companies, substantial evidence showing gender diversity at the top enhances a company’s performance is old news.

The economic and social advantages are clear, senior women have a lot to offer as leaders. No debate needed.

But, if we’re going to create the right environment for those leaders to flourish, we have to consider, understand and facilitate “The Menopause Conversation”.

 

Menopause – a silent source of adverse impact in the workplace

We want to elevate a discussion about how the unique health and wellbeing needs of older women are relevant to gender diversity objectives and strong performance at the top of organisations. It’s an area where adverse impact is rife.

There is minimal attention and investment into female midlife issues and (without any bitterness, only concern) we report that the ultimate reason for this is that is our culture is still biased towards pursuing eternal youth for women. Women’s health technology (the so-called ‘femtech’ market) has burgeoned in recent times, but it has revolved predominantly around fertility and pregnancy.

Female health and wellbeing goes far beyond the reproductive years.

At EEK & SENSE, we would love to see a concerted effort on understanding the impact of menopause on women’s careers, their health, wellbeing and performance; the implications for their colleagues and teams and the relevance of menopause to diversity and talent management among the most senior roles in organisations.

 

Menopause is a man’s issue too!

Many of our GLWS community are (like us) middle aged women for whom this blog is almost certain to resonate. But perhaps you’re a bloke – young, middle-aged or older – married to a middle-aged woman; or working alongside or above them in your organisation’s structure? If that’s you, or perhaps you’re a younger woman not yet at this stage in your life – please don’t squirm, read on.

Because this is a blog for everyone, so we can begin to be ‘out and proud’ about menopause as a serious factor on the gender and talent diversity agenda, and to herald in an era of seeing it more positively – as the start of the second half of life for women. We’re miles away yet.

So, first we need to get comfy with having ‘The Menopause Conversation’ with other women, self-authoring and enabling women to bust open their experiences and implications. Then, we need to get men involved as well.

The menopause conversation has the power to impact not only personal wellbeing but workplace culture and performance effectiveness, and when it comes to levelling the playing field for women, it’s crucial.

Here’s our roundup of the key context and suggestions for how to address and take control of it.

 

Why is menopause stigmatised and misunderstood?

Great strides are being made in mental health de-stigmatisation, but menopause remains an uncomfortable or even taboo topic for many. The enlightened and progressive are 100% committed to gender equality within their organisations, all the way to the top. To pay more than lip service to this, the wellbeing needs of female leaders must be met throughout their whole careers.

There are many societal and cultural reasons why menopause is still swept under the rug even as attitudes to wellbeing and mental health change rapidly and for the better.

Workforce participation of women over 45 years of age is steadily increasing, particularly in the 55-64 age group. Between 1999 and 2012, this group’s workforce participation rate grew by a staggering 23%.

While workplaces in Australia have slowly incorporated the needs of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers into their cultures, those at the other end of the journey are seldom acknowledged nor understood.

According to one article:

“Studies overseas, particularly in the UK, have more comprehensively explored the link between workplace performance and menopause. It is generally agreed that women are often able to conceal their symptoms and manage their workloads. Yet they often do so at their own personal expense.”

Previous research has also shown that women view disclosure of menopausal status at work to be threatening and embarrassing, potentially exposing them to ridicule and hostility when discussed with managers.

 

The cost of menopause

It seems a cruel twist that, just as women are approaching the peak of their leadership opportunities, this period (pun intended) often coincides with menopause striking. It’s debilitating for 1 in 4.

For these women, the personal cost is obvious.

But the business costs to these leaders and their organisations are also significant – especially when you consider organisations’ D&I objectives and the effect on their talent pipeline. Research shows two-thirds of women surveyed reported a moderate to severe impact on their working lives and 10% left employment altogether due to severe menopausal symptoms.

 

Menopause in medical terms

Every woman goes through it.

It’s a natural part of ageing, and usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 but can also be brought on by surgery to remove the ovaries or the womb (hysterectomy).

It’s medically characterised by falling reproductive hormones – especially oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

Since oestrogen receptors exist throughout a woman’s whole body, menopause affects every aspect of her physical, mental, and emotional health.

Menopause symptoms of oestrogen deficiency include:

hot flushes light-headedness
headaches sleeplessness
mood changes unusual tiredness
irritability backache
depression joint and muscle pains
insecurity crawling feelings under the skin
anxiety lower libido

 

Oh what a barrel of fun!

And as an extra bonus, symptoms generally promise to last between 4 and 8 years.

It’s important to note, especially in a career sense, that oestrogen levels in the body don’t recover after the menopause. With rising life expectancy, women are now living more than a third of their lives with oestrogen deficiency.

Not exactly a passing phase then.

 

Menopause in workplace wellbeing terms

From our research with the GLWS, there are 121 factors we know to be relevant to senior leaders’ sense of wellbeing. The 10 most important are listed in the table below.

When you examine these factors within the context of changes being experienced by menopausal women, you’ll see that we have identified 9 out of 10 of the factors as rationally, logically being ones probably experienced as more debilitating through menopause than at other times in life. This is based upon the range of physical and psychological medical symptoms above.

 

10 GLWS items most strongly
associated with overall wellbeing
Impacted negatively by menopause?
I feel depressed at work* YES
I feel depressed at home* YES
I feel I am going through my life on autopilot*  
I spend too much time dwelling on the negatives in my life* YES
I feel optimistic and confident about being able to shape my future YES
I feel stressed or anxious at work* YES
I feel drained at work* YES
I have plenty of energy to do the things I want to do YES
I feel worried or anxious even when I am not at work* YES
I feel lonely or isolated* YES

* = Reverse scored factors.

 

Why we need to make workplaces easier for mature women

If we want to look after the wellbeing of our business leaders and use their skills in the most productive way to benefit everyone, we have to take menopause and its symptoms into account.

Researchers have wondered why women go through menopause. There are many theories, but this evolutionary hypothesis is particularly interesting and goes a long way to explaining the value of mature female leaders – not just in the workplace, but in life more generally.

The embodied capital model: because gathering food takes skill and smarts, something you only get over years of experience, menopause evolved so that smart, skillful grandmothers could spend more time feeding and caring for their naive, inexperienced grandchildren.

From the article:

“It’s not just about how many offspring you produce, but whether they live to produce offspring of their own. In that way, a grandmother who ensures the survival of her family could be a big evolutionary benefit to the species.”

In the workplace context, we see post-menopausal women (if they can last) highly regarded for their wisdom, compassion, balanced judgement, broad perspective, concern for the next generation and an emphasis on succession planning and talent development.

A groundswell of support has led to some employers being asked to create ‘menopause friendly’ workplaces.

But what does ‘menopause friendly’ mean in today’s world?

 

How to create a menopause-friendly leadership culture

Having open conversations about menopause while avoiding ageism and sexism can be a tricky dance in the modern workplace.

A few suggestions – many of which tie neatly in with our GLWS values:

  1. Create a sympathetic management dialogue around menopause so it’s no longer stigmatised or misunderstood.
  2. Introduce flexible working arrangements (including later start times if women feel they need more sleep during this time?) and micro-flexible policies enabling staff to take small chunks of time out through the day to attend to their wellbeing.
  3. Ask HR about sick day policies and if menopause can be made part of your company’s wellness program and education efforts.
  4. There are qualified specialist menopause practitioners out there – sign them up as providers to your company health and wellbeing services.
  5. Introduce self-care as a KPI for all leaders – with a slant around accommodations for the physical and psychological effects of menopause for older women.
  6. Make counselling, coaching or therapy readily available for business leaders going through menopause if they need it (without pressure).
  7. Focus particularly on skills to help boost and regulate moods, anxiety and depression. On a more day-to-day pragmatic level, equip the workspace – with things like desk fans, access to chilled water and handing over control of the thermostat.
  8. A kinder everyday structure – with regular breaks and quiet rooms where people can take a time out if necessary.

 

Any progress in this area is much appreciated, so please help us lift the lid and open up “The Menopause Conversation”. It will help level the playing field for everyone to perform to their full potential irrespective of their hormones.

And from two female leaders who are experiencing it themselves in uniquely differently but equally challenging ways – I thought I was losing my mind, I didn’t feel like me, I was sleepless in Sydney and every day was a hard slog – our message is don’t be one of the 93% of women who suffer in silence – please seek help from friends, colleagues, family, your GP and holistic health practitioners.

 

Be well!

Audrey (& Karen)

 

References:

Tackling The Menopause Taboo In The Workplace
https://www.forbes.com/sites/joyburnford/2018/11/30/tackling-the-menopause-taboo-in-the-workplace/

Why employers are being asked to create ‘menopause friendly’ workplaces – ABC News
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-09/employers-being-asked-to-create-menopause-friendly-workplaces/10968192

Menopause Might Be The End Of Reproduction, But It’s The Just The Start Of Wisdom
https://curiosity.com/topics/menopause-might-be-the-end-of-reproduction-but-its-the-just-the-start-of-wisdom-curiosity/

A silent career killer – here’s what workplaces can do about menopause
https://theconversation.com/a-silent-career-killer-heres-what-workplaces-can-do-about-menopause-98860

What does the menopause do to the body? – BBC News
https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48258910

Menopause discrimination is a real thing – this is how employers can help
https://theconversation.com/menopause-discrimination-is-a-real-thing-this-is-how-employers-can-help-108641

Women at work: New horizons for menopause research – Australasian Menopause Society
https://www.menopause.org.au/hp/information-sheets/853-osteoporosis

Menopause Support Group
https://warwick.ac.uk/services/equalops/networks/menopause/

https://www.menopausedoctor.co.uk/menopause/menopause-work-often-not-good-combination/

 

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