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Universities can lead the way in making a better menopause

Disappointed by foot dragging in Westminster, Karen Ross argues that higher education should step up and take the lead on making the menopause an everyday story
This article is more than 1 year old

Karen Ross is Professor of Gender and Media at Newcastle University

The government has rejected one of the proposals from its own Women and Equalities Committee’s report: to introduce “menopause leave” pilots in England. The reasoning? The potential “unintended consequences” that menopause leave could discriminate against men.

It beggars belief that a proposal which would support women – half the population – who are going through a perfectly natural, but often debilitating, change in their bodies, means that you could disadvantage another group, in this case men suffering from long term medical conditions. As if workplace policy is always a zero-sum game; more to her means less to him.

And even more unbelievably, the summary rejection of a policy aimed at retaining the experience and expertise of older women, not to mention minimising the thousands of person hours currently lost through sickness, comes at the same time as government is considering developing initiatives to entice recent retirees back into the workforce to plug the considerable gaps in the labour market.

Understand the experience

So what now? As the government has rejected five of the 12 recommendations made in the report, how should we move forward to support women who could be forced into early retirement because of an unsupportive workplace?

The first step is to understand menopause as a natural part of a woman’s life. Medicalising the experience by establishing an HRT tsar unhelpfully implies menopause is a sickness – something to be “cured” – although we welcome the appointment of a menopause ambassador.

We need to change workplace culture so that menopause is better understood and recognised as a process of change, not dismissed as a problem or weaponised to undermine women’s authority – and higher education should take the lead.

In my own research with women in both the UK and Uganda, women have remarkably similar experiences in relation to experiencing the menopause but also in how others respond to them.

Menopause affects all aspects of life, not just the women who are going through it. It affects women’s co-workers and managers in their workplaces; it affects their friends, families, and relationships. The Menopause Charity estimates that ten per cent of the female workforce need to leave their jobs when they go through the menopause because their workplaces are not supportive.

Of the women we interviewed in our research, many worked in HE. We spoke to academics who had lost their confidence to teach because of brain fog – losing their train of thought halfway through a lecture. Others talked of the dismissive sideways comments about “oh, don’t mind her, she’s menopausal,” or the embarrassment of hot flashes in the middle of a meeting, with everyone pretending nothing was happening.

What became clear was that employers need to do more to educate themselves and their staff to create an empathetic environment in the workplace, a space where menopause is understood and it is ok to say you need a moment to collect your thoughts or you need to open a window even in the middle of winter. Creating a kinder workplace is surely in everyone’s interest, whether we are menopausal or not.

Menopause and organisational change

Here at Newcastle University, we have been developing some proactive strategies in this space. Given the age range of our university community – staff and students – a key part of this work has been focused on raising awareness, not just among men but across the generations.

This inclusive approach is vital, not just to help younger women better understand what they could expect and what support is there for them when they get there, but to create an environment in which staff feel able to own what’s happening to them without shame or embarrassment.

One of the creative ways we have been raising awareness is through using animation to support the learning of our medical students, a resource which has been taken up by colleagues outside the university as well and focuses on the emotional impact of the menopause.

Through Colleague Wellbeing we have also introduced “menopause champions” alongside a new university policy and accompanying menopause guidance. We have built up a network of 32 champions across the organisation who can offer support or signpost to the relevant help and advice.

We also hold “meno-meetups” offering an opportunity to share our challenges and experiences with each other in a safe and supportive environment.

The next step in our own menopause journey here at Newcastle University is developing a stage play which will expose the double standards in how women and men’s health are regarded and demonstrate the many ways in which we as family, friends, health professionals, co-workers and employers can positively support women as they negotiate this part of their life course.

Universities have the opportunity– both as employers and experts – to lead the way in driving a positive change in the way we support women during the menopause. Through our research, practice and policies, we can advise other policymakers while also having an impact on the working lives of our own communities.

And rather than disadvantaging men, making workplaces kinder for women experiencing menopause will benefit us all, helping to retain the wealth of talent, expertise and investment that has gone into the development of so many amazing women who still have so much more to give the world.

Certainly for this change to happen – for menopause to become an everyday story – we will need men to embrace the change and come on the journey with us.

4 responses to “Universities can lead the way in making a better menopause

  1. Thank you for this article. It’s such an important subject and one that affects us all, yet until relatively recently it’s barely been spoken about publicly.

  2. Fantastic article Karen. Taking the initiative and doing something – as opposed to either just procrastinating – or even blocking for spurious reasons – is absolutely brilliant. Newcastle seem to be at the forefront in the HE sector – and I applaud you!

  3. Wonderful to see this work going on at Newcastle University. Thank you for being so proactive in relation to this topic. As a 62 year old lecturer here, I can certainly relate!!!

  4. This is really encouraging. Moving forward with making the ‘unmentionable’ mentionable. As a sufferer myself, what welcome news.

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