Newcastle University Business School

News Item

World Menopause Day: Menopause at work - whose embarrassment is it anyway?

Menopause refers to the time at which a woman stops menstruating. It is established retrospectively; typically a year following a woman’s last period. On average, UK women reach their menopause at 51 years.

Not all women experience the menopause and not all women who are older however, for many it is an expected part of their mid-life. Each woman experiences her menopause differently and symptoms vary, but hot flushes, tiredness, and memory lapses are typical; potentially impacting both home and work life. Alongside, more women over 50 are working than ever before. This shifting workplace demographic has focused attention on older women’s working lives and the need to better understand the impact of the menopause at work.  

Supporting menopausal women at work means ensuring that cold drinking water is available, workwear is not cumbersome, toilets are easily accessible and the workspace is adequately ventilated (Brewis et al., 2017). To move beyond these fundamental requirements and be responsive to the specific workplace and workforce, there must be an open dialogue. Yet, it is the need for open dialogue around bodies and bodily functions that can cause difficulties, for one thing, it can lead to embarrassment.

We are told that women often hide their menopausal symptoms and avoid talking to their managers because of embarrassment. In Clare's research examining menopause and work, participants spoke of embarrassment and across the five senses, the women said:

  1. Sight - looking flushed can be ‘really sodding embarrassing’
  2. Sound - they shied away from speaking to supervisors about symptoms because they didn’t expect support and felt it would be regarded as ‘moaning’
  3. Smell - hot flushes and mild incontinence meant they worried about embarrassing odours, often exacerbated by ‘the disaster that is air-conditioning’
  4. Touch - irregular and/or heavy bleeding led to concerns of staining pale coloured seats
  5. Taste - despite any embarrassment that might ensue, priority for work clothes was not taste or style but being ‘comfortable’.

So, it seems the difficulty of embarrassment is self-directed and sits squarely with women.

Whose embarrassment is it anyway?

Except, is it just women’s embarrassment that’s involved?

In my study, the women generally downplayed their menopause because they had concerns that doubts would be raised about their fitness to work, competence or commitment. However, a ‘big flush’ was often impossible to hide, which led to much embarrassment.

Yet, it was not just the women who were embarrassed, co-workers (including managers) were too: co-workers were either embarrassed for the woman having the flush or embarrassed because they did not know how to respond. If the former, they were more sympathetic or understanding. If the latter, they backed off. Either way, this co-worker response was preferential to indifference, intolerance or the women being questioned about their ability to work.

Here, we see that embarrassment is not just self-directed; it is multi-directional. And this represents one of the major findings from my study, the women did not always seek to hide their ‘embarrassing’ bodies; and, sometimes, it was useful to be menopausal in full sight.

The lessons: senses and sensibilities

Of course, women would not have to make a purposeful show of their menopausal symptoms if co-workers (both men and women) had fewer sensibilities around bodies and bodily functions. This leads to this lessons that can be taken from this research, for the menopause and beyond.

Consider the five senses for the bodies at your workplace:

  1. Sight: are aesthetic concerns discriminatory; think ageism, sexism, racism, ableism. Do people feel the need to hide their bodies or bodily functions?
  2. Sound: moving beyond platitudes of offering opportunities for communication; are open discussions about bodies/bodily functions happening? How do you know, have changes been made that suggest voices are being heard?
  3. Smell: ventilation, temperature; whose bodies are considered in discussions on ‘climate control’ and fresh air?
  4. Touch: are surfaces considered for bodies/bodily functions; beyond menstruation, consider allergies, skin conditions and manoeuvrability e.g. polished floors.
  5. Taste: do dress codes allow all bodies to breathe, move and function freely?

Then, consider the sensibilities at your workplace - how comfortable are people in talking about bodies/bodily functions. If the answer is ‘not very’, what will you/the organisation do to address the silence?

If workplaces are true to their word of being inclusive, then everybody and all bodies need to be part of the conversation.

Full article published in ‘Work, Employment and Society’ - Online First - 07 October - 

In May 2019 BBC Breakfast discussed how organisations can support menopausal women

published on: 18 October 2019