Are organisations truly embracing inclusivity at every stage of a woman’s career journey?

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Navigating menopause in the boardroom is a crucial factor in gender diversity efforts, writes Lauren Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Embrace.

“Every board meeting is a battle against my own body – I’m trying to focus on decisions when all I can think about are the hot flushes,” confides a 52-year-old HR executive who we interviewed that is grappling with menopause. This sentiment, echoed by numerous women that we spoke to, reveals a startling range of symptoms, from the commonly known hot flushes to less discussed and equally debilitating cognitive challenges like brain fog and forgetfulness. And even more debilitating, the emotional challenges with feeling so vulnerable, often leading to anxiety and depression.

Many of these symptoms significantly impact an individual’s ability to perform at work, not to mention their psychological wellbeing and relationships. Yet, a recurring worry is that disclosing these issues might lead colleagues to question their professional capabilities and they might be viewed as weak. A phrase that often surfaced in our discussions was the fear of being perceived as ‘past their prime’.

In our discussions with employers, we frequently encountered a noticeable gap in awareness about menopause and its impact on the workplace. Surprisingly, some employers even dismissed menopause as a ’niche’ condition. Given that a large proportion of the working female population is affected, such a label is not only inaccurate, but also concerning. Addressing this misconception is crucial.

While organisations are ramping up their employment policies to ensure that they deliver on DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion) requirements, our findings reveal that even women in managerial roles often feel they lack the support needed to drive meaningful change for their teams. One leader shared a revealing insight, saying, “As a leader in the organisation, showing empathy to my fellow women team members might make me appear as a weak leader.”

Understanding the spectrum of menopause

Menopause is often misunderstood as a brief period during which a woman in her 50s experiences a few hot flushes before her menstrual cycle stops abruptly. However, the reality is far more intricate. There is a lesser-known and rarely discussed phase known as perimenopause, which can begin as early as the late 30s.

During this period, a woman’s reproductive hormones decline in a notably unpredictable fashion, making the transition anything but simple. Perimenopause is characterised by intense hormonal fluctuations that trigger a series of tumultuous changes, manifesting in a broad spectrum of symptoms that impact mood, sleep and overall health.

While more than 37 symptoms have been identified, this number barely scratches the surface of the true impact. Our dialogues with women experiencing this phase reveal profound distress and confusion. One 57-year-old executive woman we spoke to described it vividly: “Work was extremely stressful – I have always had high-level roles, but for the first time I had anxiety … and had to resign and take a sabbatical.”

Research suggests that over 80 percent of women will experience menopausal symptoms, with more than two thirds reporting that these symptoms have adversely affected their performance at work, and around 10 percent even considering leaving their jobs as a result.

Notably, the age group most impacted by menopause – late 40s to mid 50s – often aligns with the period when women are advancing into senior leadership roles. Despite this, menopause remains a stigmatised topic often associated with decreased productivity and performance.

International trends

There is growing international recognition of the impact of menopause at work, particularly in the UK and the US, where advancements have been made to incorporate menopause-related support into workplace policies. Notably, new directives from the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission assert that employers may face discrimination lawsuits if they fail to make “reasonable adjustments” for women experiencing menopause.

Upon examining South African labour law to determine if there is any relevant legislation, we found that while no specific laws address menopause directly, the principles of the Employment Equity Act require employers to ensure the health and safety of employees and protect against unfair discrimination based on gender or medical conditions. These principles can be interpreted to include the substantial and debilitating symptoms some women experience during menopause, seldom spoken about to employers out of fear of stigmatisation or appearing incapable.

Through our own discussions with women across various industries, many shared that the lack of awareness and support at work made their experience more challenging than it needed to be. They spoke of the immense relief and potential for increased productivity that could come from simple changes like more flexible work policies and environments tailored to their needs, such as adjustable room temperatures or the option for more and targeted breaks, or work-from-home options on days they did not feel their full selves.

Perhaps the first step towards any intervention should be raising awareness and fostering an environment where employees can discuss their experiences without feeling stigmatised. As one woman shared, “It is very helpful to talk about it: it’s not in your head and you’re not losing your mind.”

By promoting open dialogues, we can remove menopause from the realm of taboo topics and perhaps even find ways to approach it with support and a bit of humour.

EAPs and existing solutions

Several women we spoke with noted that their existing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) were not adequately addressing menopause. This observation may reflect a broader shift needed in wellness programmes – from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to a more tailored range of optional benefits that cater to diverse needs. Our research underscores a significant gap in data concerning women’s health conditions such as menopause, a gap that is perhaps mirrored in the standard offerings found in most companies.

Many interviewees expressed a need for tailored health services that would allow them to access specialised care, exchange advice and find community support, thereby diminishing the sense of isolation they experienced. Additionally, implementing flexible policies that enable women to adjust their work schedules or modify their workspaces could significantly enhance a broader culture of adaptability and understanding in the workplace.

If DEI is a cornerstone of a company’s strategy, acknowledging menopause as a significant yet under-discussed aspect of life makes perfect sense. A McKinsey study highlights that menopause support isn’t just beneficial for employees; it’s a smart business move. It reports, “Firms that embrace comprehensive DEI policies, including menopause support, report higher satisfaction and retention rates among their staff.” Moreover, studies indicate that women are more likely to work for organisations that demonstrate a strong commitment to initiatives like menopause support.

By openly addressing menopause, we have the opportunity to dismantle outdated stereotypes and empower both women and their managers to navigate this natural life stage with informed support. Our candid conversations with women revealed that simply being heard and validated can provide immense relief. This acknowledgement not only alleviates personal stress but also fosters a workplace environment where women feel genuinely supported and valued.

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