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Time to talk about the menopause – and to actively support those going through it - Sian Mantovani

17 August 2023

By Sian Mantovani, sociology lecturer at York College and Research Further Scholar

I recently spent the weekend catching up with the self-proclaimed “Hull’s Belles”- my long standing and dearest female friends from university. Over the 25-plus years of our comradeship, we have regularly set aside time to gather from our respective corners of the world to chat, laugh and share. Over the years, the topics have inevitably shifted; Love affairs gone disastrously and hilariously wrong, tentative career steps that tottered, steadied, then became strides. Partners. Husbands. Kids for some. No kids for others. We have supported each other through all this and more. In more recent times, our focus has been on the shared ‘stage’ of our lives i.e. the peri and menopause.

It’s proven a rich source of discussion. Even among the four of us, the range of experience is broad. From extensive, if waiting-list-protracted, medical interventions for me, to being fobbed off by a harassed and disinterested GP for others. One point of gratitude is that at least we have each other. Unlike our own mothers, we have not had to suffer in silence. We watched Davina McCall’s recent TV documentary and avidly consumed the growing media output on this now hot topic. Menopause talk is out there in the public domain.

However, the most help we have received in navigating this often frustrating and occasionally overwhelming life stage, has been in private, from each other. We have been each other’s sources of information, strategy and shoulders to cry on. One friend has been encouraged to go back to that less than helpful GP, armed with a menopause diary and a more forthright attitude. We’ve exchanged tips on the benefits of yoga and improved nutrition. Above all, we’ve talked and we’ve listened. I am deeply grateful for the shift in discourse around menopause which has created this dismantling of the taboo, but there is still a long way to go.

One year ago, I was asked by my head of HR to write a piece for our college staff news on the topic of the menopause. Emboldened by the rise in media interest in the issue, I had recently sought the support of HR for my own complex needs associated with the perimenopause. I was grateful that my college even had a Menopause Policy. As recently as 2022, FE sector press reported that six out of ten institutions within the FE sector did not have such a policy, and a YouGov survey of the same year found that only 27 per cent of organisations in the education sector provide information about the menopause to their employees.

I felt strongly that our college policy was, and is, there to be used and should not exist as tick-box exercise. It was important to advertise its existence and the benefits I had been able to access because of it. A quiet room had helped me manage my frequent and debilitating migraines and a teaching room with easy access to a toilet helped me deal with menorrhagia. My college had also established a group for staff living with the menopause/ perimenopause. PAUSE was established to start conversations and support staff with the challenges and concerns this transition period can bring. PAUSE is uplifting, inspiring and well attended. In fact, café groups, like PAUSE, are one of the government’s recommended strategies for menopause support.

The aim of the staff news piece I was asked to write was for it to be part of a move by my college to open up the conversation around menopause still further and encourage others to come forward to seek the support on offer. Was there a need for this gentle nudge? According to research by Beck et al, only 45.8 per cent of employees experiencing peri/menopause choose to disclose their menopause status. Therefore, it was important to me to be a vocal, albeit slightly reluctant “menopause mascot” and help push awareness. Much has been achieved in the last few years. However, it would be overly optimistic to claim that the taboo around menopause has been dismantled.

In my piece for the staff bulletin, I acknowledged that coming forward to self- identify as a person experiencing the peri menopause was not straight forward. I mentioned at the time that I could absolutely see this was not a course of action everyone would choose to take. I understand the reluctance. One much valued colleague cautioned against speaking up as she felt being labelled in this way could have career consequences. After all, it was hard to shake the words of one former male manager who once questioned if “God would save him from menopausal women?” The attitude that menopause is “problematic” in the workplace is not only held by some male managers, but by some women, too.

In 2022, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development surveyed women experiencing menopausal symptoms. Over half - 59 per cent - said that their work had been negatively impacted. And according to research by Geukes et al, the risk of reporting low work ability is eight times higher among women who report severe menopausal symptoms. It is easy, therefore, to see that speaking up can create an unwanted spotlight on one’s capability. Yet staying silent also has a price. According to Griffiths et al, having to hide menopausal complaints can become a major stressor in itself.

The point is that many women do worry about the perception of being “menopausal” and that it can be challenging to step out from being an “invisible woman” who quietly muddles through. It is tricky to move beyond sympathetic, even raucous discussions with girlfriends and whispered chats in the staff room, to loudly and proudly declaring one’s status as a person experiencing peri/menopause.

Women over 50 constitute the fastest growing group in the UK workforce overall, and ONS figures from 2019 show a female to male ratio of 72 to 28 in the education sector. Clearly, addressing the challenges in life stage many of these women are experiencing is important. That is not to ignore that support is also needed for nonbinary and trans colleagues who are also managing this life experience. As mentioned before, one size does not fit all. The experience is varied - and so, too, are the strategies required. There can also be an impact on work colleagues, families and other loved ones which needs recognition and support. So, the situation is complex. But what of the “official” response?

Earlier this year, the government responded to recommendations proposed by the cross-party Women’s and Equalities Commission. The latter had been tasked with examining ways to make it easier for women to obtain the support they needed to thrive at work. The then Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, rejected a suggested pilot scheme into menopausal leave, and the recommendation to add the menopause to the list of protected characteristics recognised in the 2010 Equalities Act was also rejected.

I am curious about the idea that the menopause does not need to be categorised as a protected status. As mentioned, there is academic research which supports the view that many women fail to come forward to identify their menopause status, in part for fear of work related repercussions. Moreover, research by Jack et al. highlights the predicament that many dealing with the menopause face i.e. reporting working harder in order to make up for perceived ‘shortcomings’ and often hiding the true reasons for absences.

In my own experience, I have attributed my occasional enforced absences to “migraine”, which is strictly speaking true. I am off sick because I have a migraine. But the fact that the increased proliferation of my migraines is associated with the menopause is obscured. I am too afraid to take sick leave for symptoms associated with the menopause, because it is not a protected characteristic. I wonder how many other people find themselves in a similar situation?

If so, the government’s claim that legal protection via the Equalities Act is not merited because it is covered by other characteristics does not appear to stand up to scrutiny. I also wonder about how this lack of legal protection lets some employers off the hook when it comes to supporting staff. On listening to an excellent webinar recently, I was struck by one section on approaching management, which jarred a little. It was suggested that conversations can be awkward and that some managers may feel ill-equipped to offer support. Likely true. After all, it is early days in breaking down the taboo around menopause.

However, my somewhat limited understanding of the Equalities Act leads me to believe that managers can’t simply cite feeling awkward or ill-equipped when dealing with protected characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. It is their legal duty to find out how best to support their employees (within reason) and ignorance is no defence for failing to adhere to the law. Granted, the discourse around disability and other protected characteristics is further along than we are with menopause but this is partly because they were given the gravitas of legal protection. In failing to afford protected status to those experiencing the menopause, it could be argued that the government are limiting what could be done to support and protect a large part of the population.

But I simply don’t like to end on a negative. So instead, I took inspiration from the aforementioned research by Jack et al. Their research proposes three key themes for approaching the menopause. Firstly, it can be seen as a period of time, viewed through the lens of second chances and renewed ambitions. Or it can be a time when work is put in its “place” and the self becomes more central. Secondly, whilst we might feel the menopause as a spiral where the body is not in line with the demands of time such as making a meeting or getting to the loo, small acts of appreciation rather than denial will go a long way to controlling that spiral.

So, fight for and then give thanks for that well ventilated room or a change in timetable to accommodate later starts. Don’t deny what you need. And finally, make time for new alliances. That might involve considering the past by having a greater appreciation for the silent suffering of those who came before or it might be focusing on the allies we have now in friends, colleagues, and our nearest and dearest. And, for me, most of all and forever, it’s making time for those mighty Hull’s Belles.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.