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Menopause is starting to be recognised as a workplace matter. The topic is gaining importance in the workplace because of mature women's increased participation in the global labour market. For example, in OECD countries, the labour force participation of women aged between 45-54 increased from 51.1% in 1970 to 72.8% in 2020; and for those within the 55-64 age range, labour force participation increased from 37.7% in 1970 to 55.2% in 2020.
Menopause marks the end of women's[i] reproductive life. It occurs on average at 51 years old. For some, this may be later or earlier naturally or for medical reasons. Although it is defined as a retrospective event, 12 months after the last menstrual period, the menopause transition spans several years before and after that point. During this time, women may experience a variety of symptoms, including physical (e.g., hot flushes, night sweats), cognitive (e.g., brain fog, memory issues), and psychological (e.g., anxiety, irritability). While these symptoms may be minor discomforts for many women, for some, these can be debilitating, negatively impacting their daily functioning.
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According to the British Menopause Society (BMS), 45% of women say that menopause symptoms have had a negative impact on their work. Evidence from two longitudinal studies conducted and employers' surveys in the UK indicate that bothersome menopause symptoms can drive women to reduce their work hours, change their career ambitions or leave the workforce altogether. At the same time, BMS suggest that 47% of women who have needed to take time off due to menopause symptoms say they would not tell their employer the reason – implying that while women's participation in the labour market has increased attitudes to their issues and needs have not kept pace (e.g., menopause).
Biomedical aspects of menopause and its implications for working women have been well-publicised in recent years. Guidance on how to manage menopause issues at the workplace has been emerging from medical experts, e.g., the European Menopause and Andropause Society (EMAS) and professional organisations, e.g., the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Many progressive organisations in countries like Australia, Canada and the UK are implementing workplace policies and practices to accommodate the needs of menopausal employees. Menopause became a government issue in the UK, with politicians campaigning for better work conditions for menopausal women. These developments are positive in helping women to remain at work when experiencing symptoms. However, a narrow focus on biomedical aspects may overshadow other elements relevant to retaining women at menopause age in the labour force.
These stereotypes make it impossible for many women to be taken seriously at work when many are moving into leadership positions
Emerging research indicates that the issues menopausal women face at work go beyond their symptoms. The symbolism of menopause as a marker of ageing has a negative impact on women at work, making them feel marginalised and alienated for not living up to workplace norms and expectations associated with an idealised 'male' worker. This ideal worker is expected to be entirely immersed in their job without distractions, such as a changing, menopausal body. Thus, it exposes mature women to disadvantages related to gender and ageism. Gendered ageism, as it is called, can be observed in the several accepted negative stereotypes associated with being an older woman.
These stereotypes make it impossible for many women to be taken seriously at work when many are moving into leadership positions. Menopause sits within the intersection of gender and age at work. Workplaces must take action so women's talent is retained; for that, a coordinated effort from employers, line managers and women is required. Here, we outline our key insights to foster a menopause-friendly work environment.
- Employers should recognise when subtle gender inequalities can culminate in older women feeling out of place at work. For instance, a lack of representation at top levels of organisations or even departments may indicate that women are either discouraged or not given the opportunity to seek career advancement. Or worse, women may be exiting the workforce prematurely. An absence of gender and age-inclusive policies, or low uptake of such policies when those exist, are also a sign that the organisation's culture favours this idealised worker.
- Line managers should foster a psychologically safe climate where open communication, empathy and mutual support are encouraged. This positive work environment is further validated by the availability of work arrangements that accommodate different needs, such as flexible working policies. They can also support their teams better if they are trained and well-informed on menopause matters or other issues that may be pushing women out of the workforce.
- Women of menopausal age should also actively shape their workplace environment by raising awareness of issues and support needed – whether those issues are linked to menopause symptoms or gendered ageist attitudes. These actions may include talking to their managers, educating colleagues, meeting others going through menopause or engaging with trade unions to advocate on their behalf. When women are in a position to co-design solutions, they feel valued and empowered to remain in work.
An interesting consequence emerges from supporting menopausal women at work. When we fight this illusion of the ideal worker that can be detrimental to menopausal women, we create an environment where others feel valued and empowered to do the same. This means that people are most likely to stay productive in the workforce when we normalise individual differences that accompany a diverse workforce, including the ebbs and flows of one's health. By fighting the subtle and pervasive gendered ageism associated with menopause, organisations reject this unrealistic, idealised worker standard in favour of real workers— those who can make a real difference for the success of organisations and society.
[i] We use the terms ‘woman’, ‘women’, female’, ‘she’, ‘her’ and so on as placeholders when referring to individuals going through menopause - including cis women and some of those who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
To learn more, check out OECD's work on Gender Equality at Work
Gender inequalities persist in OECD labour markets. On average, men are more likely than women to: be in paid work, work more hours per week, be in leadership positions and work in more lucrative sectors and occupations so that they generally are better paid. Women on the other hand carry out most of the unpaid (care) work in and around the house. Gender gaps widen with age, as motherhood often has marked negative effects on gender pay gaps and career advancement. Policies such as parental leave, formal childcare, flexible working practices, pay transparency initiatives and gender audits can all help reduce labour market gaps, but their effectiveness depends on design and workplace cultures.