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Beyond hot flashes: Creating a supportive workplace for all women

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woman at workI’ve lived long enough to be a first-hand witness to the unfair portrayal of women in society, which was sadly accepted as the norm until recently. The shared beliefs held ‘way back when’ often marginalized women, placing ultimate value on their reproductive abilities. Aging was primarily discussed in the terminology of myths and legends across cultures, portraying older women as respected elders with wisdom or feared figures associated with sorcery and witchcraft. Women’s participation in the workforce was rarely addressed in those narratives. These traditional views prevailed when societal norms limited women’s participation in the workforce. However, in recent decades, there has been much-needed progress towards gender equality in the workplace. Women have taken on more leadership roles and proved their ability to perform in many traditionally male-dominated fields. In Western economies, it is widely acknowledged that women now face fewer age-related challenges in their careers. This positive shift can be attributed in the U.S. to milestones like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which laid a foundation for gender equality by prohibiting wage discrimination based on gender. Acting laws such as the Age Discrimination Act have further bolstered these protections, addressing issues concerning women’s participation in the workforce, like harassment, maternity leave, and work-life balance. Today, women have so many more opportunities to compete for roles historically held by men than we did when I was coming of age in the 50s and 60s in the United States. This progress results from a transformation driven by reforms, societal changes, and technological advancements that have fostered a more equitable environment. We are all the better for it! Furthermore, legal frameworks now try to accommodate employed women’s role as caregivers through provisions like maternity leave entitlements. While universal in principle, there are variations in how this is implemented across countries – admittedly, the US has quite a bit of catching up to do in this arena. Technological progress has also been instrumental in creating employment prospects and facilitating work arrangements. The digital era has introduced concepts like online work, telecommuting, and online platforms that enable individuals to work from the comfort of their homes. This adaptability has proven to be especially advantageous for women, who often shoulder a disproportionate burden of caregiving responsibilities and can now better juggle work and family obligations.  So, we’ve made a vast improvement for women during their childbearing years; what about those of us who have moved past that stage?  As we wrote before, while menopause is a natural experience for women and has existed for millennia, its impact on  the workforce has only recently gained significant attention from employers and investors.
  • Around 6,000 women in the US reach menopause each day, according to one estimate, and this natural transition can have implications for their careers.
  • A 2021 Mayo Clinic survey of 4,440 women aged 45 to 60 found that 13.4% reported experiencing at least one negative work outcome due to menopause symptoms, while 10.8% reported missing work in the past year.
  • The Mayo Clinic further estimates that the US loses $1.8 billion annually due to workdays lost as a result of menopause symptoms.

How does menopause affect a woman’s experience in the workplace?

One aspect lacking in the push for gender equality is the recognition of the necessity for adjustments that women transitioning through age into menopause might require. A stark illustration of this disparity can be seen on the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, where a search for information on the rights of women yields abundant results. In contrast, information on menopause is notably absent. Menopause involves more than hot flashes and night sweats. Most of the women who encountered challenges during menopause reported issues with sleeping and cognitive fog as key symptoms that significantly affected their work experience. A majority of women face one or more symptoms they find challenging. Anxiety or depression stemming directly from these changes are among the commonly cited difficulties.

What kind of support is there for older women in the workplace? 

Despite the universal advancements towards gender equality, women often face career challenges related to age and life stages, particularly concerning menopause. In societies and industries, implicit and age-related constraints can influence women’s career paths. This discussion leads me back to a question: has the progress toward gender equality in the workplace adequately considered the challenges faced by employees as they progress through perimenopause and into menopause? 

What steps should employers take to better support employees going through menopause?

A real-life insight into this issue can be gained from a survey conducted among thousands of women aged 45 to 55 in the U.K. who are currently experiencing or have gone through perimenopause or menopause.  This situation has brought to light some issues in the workplace that have effects on women going through menopause;
  •  10% of menopausal women who were still working had quit their jobs because of their symptoms.
  •  In the survey, 80% of women mentioned that their employers had not shared information, provided training, or established a policy for managing absences arising from symptoms of menopause.
  •  Nearly half of the women surveyed had not consulted their doctors for treatment of their symptoms. Among them, one-third experienced delays in getting diagnosed.
  •  Fewer than half of the women who sought medical advice about menopause were immediately offered Hormone Replacement Therapy.
Employers must acknowledge that menopause can affect women’s job performance. Without support, many women may lose motivation at work due to their symptoms. And grow to doubt their capabilities. This can lead to outcomes such as leaving the workforce when symptoms are severe, reducing work hours, or avoiding seeking promotions. By implementing changes in HR practices, training programs providing information about menopause throughout the corporation, adjusting absence policies to offer flexible work options, and making environmental adaptations, employers can better support women during this phase.
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