Menopause can lead to discrimination

Going through menopause while working can be difficult. Menopause typically occurs for women between 45-55 years of age and is often preceded by peri-menopause.

While many people know about “hot flushes” it’s less well known that there are more than 30 different symptoms women can experience in the years before and after their periods stop.

For some the symptoms are mild but for others it can be disturbed sleep including night sweats, itching skin, leg cramps, needing to urinate frequently, nausea, abdominal pain, acne, brain fog, fatigue, depression and anxiety. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms it’s important to talk to your doctor.

Academics at the Monash Business School estimated that in 2019 there were 1.3 million Australian women between the ages of 45 and 55 who worked in the health and education sectors alone and one in four were likely to experience significant menopausal symptoms. According to CESE data almost 20 per cent of teachers in NSW are women aged 45-55.

Professor Gavin Jack, lead researcher for a La Trobe University study (2014), identified that menopausal women fear age-based discrimination in the workplace and face a lack of menopause-specific support. Many of the participants in the study felt anxious speaking with their managers and colleagues about symptoms because they feared being stereotyped as aged or unable to cope.

In addition to managing peri- and menopausal symptoms, many of the women surveyed were also juggling the stresses of child caring responsibilities and other life transitions such as caring for parents or divorce. Professor Jack said: “We need to rethink the culture of our workplaces by tackling myths and unconscious biases associated with menopause and with ageing. Organisations need to recognise that mature-aged women are a committed, ambitious and resilient segment of the workforce.”

A study by Monash University, published last year, interviewed more than 2000 women over five years about their experiences of menopause at work. Professor Kate Riach, who led the study, said: “Previous research has shown that women often view disclosure of menopausal status at work to be threatening and embarrassing, potentially exposing them to ridicule and hostility when discussed with managers.”

The study also found that when workplaces lack both the practical means and the empathy required to support women who are going through menopause, some women believe they need to leave work because they feel unsupported and unable to cope.

There’s a strong economic and social case for supporting women to continue in paid employment as they age. Professor Riach states that these women are not “simply counting down to retirement” they come to the workplace with “added skills and resilience”, they may be experiencing some health issues for a period of time but they have so much to offer in wealth of experience, talent and knowledge.

Professor Amanda Griffiths, University of Nottingham, reported in 2019 that menopause has quite a significant impact on the personal and professional lives of up to a quarter of (British) women. As women made up an increasing proportion of the ageing workforce it’s not just about women having problems with menopause “it’s about managers understating that it is perfectly normal for women to have these health problems”.

The Monash University study found that a lot of mechanisms to support women during menopause already existed in workplaces but the main issue is around awareness and empathy.

It suggested important steps for creating an environment of acceptance and understanding about menopause should include a conversation between the employee and line manager on specific work-related experiences of menopausal symptoms and then, using a framework tool, together identify an appropriate workplace adjustment or form of practical support. For example, in a school context, it may mean having easy access to toilets or a change room, temperature control, a plan for classroom supervision at short notice, flexible working arrangements, etc.

Sadly, menopause is still often a taboo subject. Women can experience a form of either direct or indirect discrimination as a result of ageism and sexism. While progress in this area has been made there is still more work to do.

More information about menopause can be found: