Voices: Why is talking about the menopause still one of society’s greatest taboos?

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Research shows that women who are at the peak of their career when perimenopause and menopause hit feel the most blindsided by it  (Getty Images)
Research shows that women who are at the peak of their career when perimenopause and menopause hit feel the most blindsided by it (Getty Images)

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, recently made headlines when she revealed in an interview that she’s nervous about menopause. On the surface, this needn’t be a news story. After all, she’s a woman approaching the age of this natural transition, and it’s not uncommon for women to be anxious about it.

It resonated with so many of us because we’re not used to hearing female leaders speak about it. In fact, this might be the highest-profile person we’ve seen discuss their menopause publicly. Granted, over the last few years, a handful of celebrities like Davina McCall, Penny Lancaster and Lisa Snowdon have shared their experiences going through “the change”. But it felt different to hear an acting head of government talk openly about her menopause.

The fact that this feels so shocking is why more women in powerful positions need to do the same. Sturgeon lamented that there weren’t many examples of predecessors that she could take inspiration from. The likes of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel haven’t commented publicly on it, so there isn’t a high-ranking politician menopause blueprint to follow. But there should be: we’re living through a female healthcare crisis, with a nationwide hormone replacement therapy (HRT) shortage. Women are suffering.

Of course, Sturgeon’s situation is unique – most menopausal people aren’t the leaders of their country – but having spent a career helping women in business realise their full potential, I know that feeling nervous and isolated at this stage of life is incredibly common, especially among successful leaders.

Women in the workplace, or indeed society, aren’t getting the support they need. The Invisibility Report from GenM – menopause partner for brands such as M&S, Royal Mail and Co-op – reveals that 88 per cent of women wish their workplaces were better equipped to deal with the menopause. It also shows that women who are at the peak of their career when perimenopause and menopause hit feel the most blindsided by it.

In her interview, Sturgeon mentioned being afraid to experience symptoms at embarrassing times. Having had perimenopausal panic attacks while running a business through to brain fog in the boardroom, I fully sympathise. I once found myself red-faced in a meeting, unable to recall the chair of the board on which I had served for several years.

But aside from awkward symptoms or a lack of support, worse still is that women don’t even feel able to speak about menopause. Whether discussing their own experiences or the topic as a whole, half of women won’t mention menopause at work for fear of negative repercussions, while a third find it too embarrassing to discuss with colleagues. Some three-quarters of participants admitted they’d never had even a single conversation about menopause at work.

Clearly, women experiencing menopause need more support, and this includes from businesses. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also in their best interests. According to a government report, menopausal women are the fastest-growing demographic in the workplace. Looking after them is essential for staff morale, retention, output and profit.

But the menopause isn’t simply a work issue – it affects every area of life. We launched GenM because it became clear that, alongside legislation and medical progress on the cause, one of the biggest ways to impact the UK’s 15.5 million menopausal women, as well as trans and non-binary people experiencing menopause, is by enabling change with the brands they use every day. This means helping organisations recognise and respond to their needs, improving signposting to products and services, encouraging responsible workplace policies, and promoting inspiring marketing.

The good news is that we’re seeing progress. Royal Mail recently launched a menopause awareness campaign to educate employees (including 16,500 female staff of menopause age). Boots created an online menopause product and information hub including a “search by symptom” feature, making it easy to find helpful items. And Co-op released a menopause training handbook for its managers that is available to the public for free so leaders at any company can learn how best to support menopausal staff.

This progress is encouraging. But perhaps the most important barrier to address is one we can all play a part in: normalising the conversation around menopause. It’s only when people feel confident to talk about it that their workplaces, friends and family will be able to understand what they’re going through and offer support.

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Even with all the progress of the last few years, 75 per cent of menopausal women still feel the topic cannot be openly discussed. We need more women in senior roles to share their experiences and lead the way for peers, as well as the next generation. Seeing leaders like Sturgeon, as well as men in the public eye, doing this fills me with hope.

Let’s work towards a world where women are no longer nervous about the menopause, but instead are equipped, knowing what to expect, how best to manage symptoms and having a support system of friends, colleagues and family who are aware of how it will affect them.

Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, a powerful female politician will mention menopause – and it won’t make headlines at all.

Heather Jackson is co-founder of GenM

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