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This article was first published in In The Black magazine, October, 2021. It features Australian workplaces that are becoming menopause-friendly. Written by Susan Muldowney

When Kim Lion began to experience symptoms of menopause in her late 40s, she did what very few women in the workforce would even consider doing – she told her boss.

“He was the CEO, and he’d only been in the role for a couple of weeks,” says Lion, head of culture and leadership at IPG Mediabrands. “I thought that even saying the word ‘menopause’ at work would make me stumble, but I wanted to do it for the sake of other women experiencing it and for the sake of our future workforce.

“I told him that it was affecting me, and that I believed we needed to take a position as an organisation. Basically, I presented it as a business case.”

Lion’s timing could not have been better. The ageing profile of labour markets in many industrialised countries coincides with an increase in women’s workforce participation and a growing push among organisations to pursue diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Women over the age of 50 now represent an increasingly large portion of the workforce. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for instance, shows the employment-to-population ratio for 65-year-old women in 2020 was 35.6 per cent. This compares to just 7 per cent in 1980 and about 10 per cent in 2000.

To support the contribution – and longevity – of women in the workplace, attitudes toward “the change” will simply need to change.

No more secrets

Menopause is not a medical condition or an illness. It is a normal stage of life for half of the world’s population that occurs at the end of their natural reproductive years.

The average age of menopause onset is 51, but it can occur earlier and, for some women, may be induced by medical treatments such as surgery or chemotherapy. Most women will experience menopausal symptoms due to hormonal changes.

This may include hot flushes, night sweats, headaches, anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, loss of confidence and difficulty concentrating.

The severity and duration of menopausal symptoms vary, and they may begin during a transition phase called perimenopause.

About 60 per cent of women will have mild symptoms for about four to eight years, while 20 per cent will have no symptoms at all. For another 20 per cent, symptoms may be severe and continue into their 60s or later.

Menopause carries an air of secrecy that has been almost universal, especially in the workplace, in part because its signs and symptoms differ among women.

Thea O’Connor, wellbeing specialist and creator of the Menopause@Work training program, says the taboo surrounding menopause can exacerbate its frequently challenging symptoms.

“I’ve interviewed about 50 women about their experience with menopause, and the standout themes are around secrecy and isolation, and feeling like they had to hide the experience of going through menopause at work,” O’Connor says.

A fear of discrimination causes many to avoid discussing menopause at work.

“There has been a stigma or an unconscious bias that you aren’t at your career peak anymore.”

A business case for change

Professor Gavin Jack, associate dean research impact and professor of management at Monash University, is part of the core research team behind Women, Work and the Menopause, a program of academic study to explore the experiences of menopause for professional women.

He says that conversations about the ageing workforce have tended to overlook how ageing is experienced differently across genders, but that labour market dynamics will force a change.

“There have been calls to pay better attention to the fact that more women are joining or active in the labour market and delivering valuable contributions,” he says. “How can the government and organisations support them to contribute for longer?”

O’Connor says the demographic argument is supported by a business case for making menopause a workplace issue.

“It can help more women reach senior levels in organisations, and research shows that when you’ve got more women at the top, the organisation performs better. But recent research suggests that 45 per cent of women going through menopause considered retiring or taking a break from work. Somewhere in the range of 4 per cent to 10 per cent actually do.

“I’ve interviewed about 50 women about their experience with menopause, and the standout themes are around secrecy and isolation, and feeling like they had to hide the experience of going through menopause at work… There has been a stigma or an unconscious bias that you aren’t at your career peak anymore.”

— Thea O’Connor, wellbeing specialist

“It’s the silence, not just the symptoms that make work untenable for some.”

Sydney Colussi, researcher at the University of Sydney, is part of a team studying international menstrual and menopause workplace policies.

Colussi says menopause policies are rare and her team have only found them to exist in the UK and Australia.

The UK is leading the way on this issue. In early June, for instance, a UK parliamentary debate on support for people experiencing menopausal symptoms was held to help inform the development of a Women’s Health Strategy.

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered Bank has recently partnered with the Financial Services Skills Commission to explore how the menopause transition affects women working in financial services and their progression to senior roles.

“One of the first companies that we know of to introduce a menopause policy is the UK’s Channel 4,” says Colussi.

“It was introduced on World Menopause Day [18 October] in 2019 and the whole purpose was to try to empower workers to ask for reasonable adjustments, so they could ease menopause symptoms in the workplace without any sort of embarrassment. They were hoping to create a more open culture on this issue.”

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