It is estimated that 15.5 million UK women are currently at some stage of the menopause, 80% of whom will experience symptoms – on average seven – which can last for anything from four to 12 years.
Yet, despite the fact 50% of the population will experience the menopause in their lifetime, it stubbornly remains a taboo subject.
In fact, 47% of the public agree menopause is a taboo topic in UK society, rising to 72% of perimenopausal and menopausal women, according to research carried out in May by My Menopause Centre and Britain Thinks.
Of the 2,087 adults surveyed, 43% admitted to not knowing much about the menopause. Only a quarter of women said they feel/felt prepared for the menopause and more than half underestimated the physical, mental and emotional symptoms.
Crucially, 67% of male respondents claimed menopause is not an issue that affects them personally, despite the fact they will have friends, family or colleagues experiencing the symptoms.
This culture of silence is causing women to suffer, particularly in the workplace. Some 77% of respondents say the menopause can negatively impact a woman’s performance at work, while 67% see a negative impact on their careers.
So passionate is Helen Normoyle about this issue that she left her role as Boots CMO in November 2020 to establish My Menopause Centre with registered menopause specialist Dr Clare Spencer. Providing free, evidence-based information and advice on all stages of menopause, the site shares details on the 38 menopause symptoms and hosts a private online menopause clinic.
Normoyle strongly believes now is the time to reframe the menopause and shift the idea of this being a women-only issue to an organisational issue.
The average woman in the UK today in her 50s can expect to live about 40% of her life post-menopausal.
Helen Normoyle, My Menopause Centre
Estimates are that on average women miss 3.27 days of work each year due to their symptoms, while 47% of employed women who took time off due to the menopause said they would not tell their employer the real reason. Research also suggests that some women have considered reducing their hours or even leaving their jobs altogether.
A good starting point would be to update the narrative about women in middle life, says Normoyle. She identifies issues about the menopause as being tied up with persistent sexist and ageist attitudes.
The former Boots CMO describes the marketing industry, in particular, as being “very challenged” in the representation of female talent in their 40s and 50s, which then impacts how brands represent older women within their marketing.
“One of the stats that struck me was that the average life expectancy for a woman at birth in 1921 was 59. The average woman would have gone through the menopause at 57, so she’d only have spent two years of her life post-menopausal,” she points out.
“If we fast forward to 2021, average life expectancy is 87 and the average age of the menopause in the UK is 51, which means the average woman in the UK today in her 50s can expect to live about 40% of her life post-menopausal.”
Normoyle’s own menopause journey starts a couple of months before her 50th birthday. Despite experiencing hot flushes and debilitating night sweats, she put the symptoms down to a cold and the pace of life as a busy CMO. However, when she started to join the dots, Normoyle went in search of the right treatment, seeking advice from her friend Dr Spencer.
“Up until that point I had no idea about brain fog, memory and concentration issues, depression, mood changes. I hadn’t realised that there was such a range of symptoms that were linked to the menopause, because of the fluctuation in your hormones,” she explains.
Shocked by the dearth of information available and looking at the situation from a marketing perspective, Normoyle could see a gap in the market for the provision of impartial advice and information, alongside clinical services with menopause specialists.
“I never thought I’d work for myself. I’ve always seen myself in a corporate role, that’s my background. I’ve worked for Motorola, DFS, the BBC, Boots and I never saw myself as an entrepreneur or working in femtech, but I feel so personally passionate about this,” she says.
Despite running for under a year, My Menopause Centre has attracted traffic from as far afield as the US, China and South America, indicating the appetite for evidence-based menopause information.
From a wider societal perspective, the pressure in business to ‘get on with it’ and not recognise menopausal symptoms remains an issue.
Some 46% of women responding to the My Menopause Centre study admitted feeling pressure ‘just to cope’ with the symptoms. Normoyle often hears women say they feel like their symptoms are not bad enough to warrant treatment.
“Why do you have to wait for your symptoms to be really bad before you feel you’re worth it? Some of the stories you hear are heart-breaking in terms of women thinking they need to leave their jobs,” she recalls.
“If you’ve worked really hard to get to a certain place in your career and then you find you’re struggling to maintain your performance and stay at that level, then the stress of putting on a good face, holding it together and feeling like you can’t talk about it, or ask for support, just exacerbates it.”
A big issue is the lack of awareness of menopause symptoms beyond hot flushes and lack of sleep, which can span anything from extreme fatigue and joint pain to anxiety and depression.
Ten years ago, marketing consultant and copywriter Rachel Agnew had a non-surgical hysterectomy, which meant her periods stopped. By the time she was 56 she had not experienced hot flushes or trouble sleeping. However, she was experiencing exhaustion, aches and pains like she had just done a workout.
Agnew put the fatigue down to the exhaustion of a year living under Covid and says it never occurred to her she was experiencing the menopause given she had none of the traditional symptoms. It was not until a blood test revealed her hormones levels were “through the floor” that she realised.
“There is so little information about the menopause that people don’t know all the symptoms you might get. Everybody always thinks of hot flushes and lack of sleep, so if you don’t have that you often don’t know what’s going on,” Agnew explains.
“We need to talk about it more because then people would understand and know to look out for the other symptoms.”
While she is confident speaking about her menopause experience, Agnew can understand why other women are uncomfortable bringing it up at work, especially when they feel the need to fight their corner in the workplace.
“Companies have to understand that this is natural. It’s not taboo. It’s a state every woman is going to go through at some point,” she argues.
“It’s about support in the same way businesses are more open now to supporting and educating about mental health issues, illness and bereavement. X percent of people might have mental health issues that will affect them in the workplace, X percent might have a bereavement, X percent might get cancer – all appalling statistics and yet 51% will absolutely experience the menopause in their lives.”
Agnew is a member of the Mums in Marketing community on Facebook and LinkedIn. Created by marketer Claire Ferreira, the group offers support and a safe space for women to share what’s going on in their lives. This week (29 September to 1 October) Mums in Marketing is hosting a series of lunchtime Zoom sessions looking to break the taboos surrounding menopause.
Day one features an explanation of what happens to women’s bodies during the menopause with specialist Dr Ferhat Uddin, while on day two group members will share their personal experiences of the symptoms. The final day will focus on addressing what more can be done to empower and better prepare women.
“This event is about our Mums in Marketing community coming together to share their own experiences and their contacts to support each other,” says Ferreira. “This is the power of peer support and the ripple effects could be endless. Over a thousand incredible women will have access to more menopause information to share at work and at home.”
Smashing the stereotypes
One marketer speaking at the event is Leigh Baillie, founder of marketing consultancy Haus of Sparks. Baillie, who first had menopausal symptoms five years ago aged 40, felt like a weight had been lifted after posting about her experiences on the Mums in Marketing group.
Eight months ago she recalls hitting rock bottom, experiencing anxiety, cold sweats, hot flushes and a sensation like bugs crawling over her skin. Couple with this blurred vision, brain fog and a sense of worthlessness, and Baillie knew what she was feeling was not depression.
Now she is aware of the cause of her symptoms Baillie is finding ways to manage them and is very open about her experiences, educating both her daughter and son about the menopause. However, she is well aware of the culture of silence, likening it to the way people still do not feel comfortable discussing miscarriage. The silence, however, is hurting women.
“How do you explain brain fog away if you’re in a meeting or doing a pitch? Do you look like a complete buffoon and incompetent? We should be able to talk about it and say: ‘These are the things that happen when we go through the menopause’,” says Baillie.
“It’s not then walking around with a hat on saying ‘I’m going through the menopause’ and it’s not even looking for allowances. It’s just some acknowledgement that it happens and it can seriously affect people’s lives.”
She is clear that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the menopause as every woman’s experience is different, but empowering women to seek support would enable their careers to continue to thrive.
“Some women are going to be at the height of their careers in their 40s. It’s about what we can do it to make it easier for women to continue with their careers and live happily,” says Baillie.
“Why make life harder than it needs to be? Having that support in a work environment, but also from a medical perspective and being able to access the treatment, as well as having open conversations, has got to be beneficial.”
One company which has blazed a trail in removing the stigma around menopause is Channel 4. In 2019 the broadcaster launched its first menopause policy, which since then has been used as a template for organisations nationwide.
Research carried out by 4Women found that 78% of staff feel better about Channel 4 as a place to work since the policy launched, while 10% of female employees have used or plan to use the policy. This is significant given 13% of Channel 4 staff are women over the age of 45.
Senior lawyer and co-chair of 4Women, Navene Alim explains the team decided to publish the policy publicly after being inundated with requests for the template. Last year Channel 4 updated its policy to reflect the changes brought about by the pandemic, guidance shaped by the experiences of a panel of women and advice from training expert Henpicked.
The policy states that women experiencing menopausal symptoms are entitled to more breaks away from their computer, earlier start and finish times to avoid peak travel and can request reduced working hours on a temporary basis. Channel 4 also offers free, confidential specialist menopause counselling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Statement of intent
Alim says the publication of the policy has opened up conversations about the menopause both internally and within wider society: “It’s broken down this massive taboo so that women, as well as men, are having lightbulb moments and being able to talk about the menopause.”
She agrees that the issue of menopause is tied up with ageism and the pressure women experience to perform at work, feeling unable to admit they are having a hard time with a women’s health issue connected to ageing.
Channel 4 has, however, found several ways to smash the menopause taboo. From a content perspective, Alim points to the success of the Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause documentary in May, which reignited discussions.
Then from a corporate perspective, the 4Women co-chairs attend panels on the subject at least once a fortnight and have helped businesses create their own policies, notably many financial institutions.
It’s broken down this massive taboo so that women, as well as men, are having lightbulb moments.
Navene Alim, Channel 4
To celebrate World Menopause Day next month (18 October) 4Women is producing a series of talking heads videos, featuring line managers discussing their experiences since the policy launched. An online training module is also being developed on navigating difficult conversations.
Aside from changing workplace culture, the menopause policy is having an impact on talent attraction. Alim just recruited into her team and all the candidates mentioned how ground-breaking the policy is, describing it as a big factor in applying for the role.
Normoyle credits “progressive” organisations like Channel 4 for leading from the front and looking beyond simply introducing a policy to changing culture.
She notes the “game-changing” impact that comes from a brand publicly stating its commitment to women through a menopause policy, which not only takes the pressure off female staff and aids conversations with managers, but shows the organisation wants to retain talent in their 40s, 50s and beyond.
“It’s really important that we as an industry think about the benefits of having policies that keep women at all ages in our workforce,” she adds.
“That has a massive positive impact on how we represent women on the other side of the camera, because if you’re developing a campaign and a key part of the target audience is women in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you’ll do a much better job of developing something that’s on brief when you have that audience working for you.”