The Prime Project – Discussion

Employment and Age
Based on the findings, there are several challenges to age-based stereotypes that still exist in society which circulate and subsequently influence academic spaces and work experiences. Contrary to popular belief, older women are enthusiastically pursuing career success well past the period associated with menopausal experience and actively seek out opportunities to elevate themselves to senior level positions. Although the experience of hormonal transition is very subjective and not every woman will have the same menopause experience, the findings suggest that many women will construct negative associations between ageing and career progression, based on their area of expertise. Chiefly, this is the triangulated effect that a woman’s body, age and productivity (internal and external) has on the highly androcentric (i.e., dominated by men and masculine values) world around it and how the female body is influenced by cultural and normative assumptions. Indeed many older menopausal women, particularly in administrative and professional roles, expressed a sense of great loss relating to their self-identity and self-worth within the organisation, resulting in feelings of invisibility. Feelings of diminished usefulness and relevance to one’s role were tied to notions of decreased female sexuality and reproductive value that coincided with relative emotional devaluation. However, these attributes were significantly less common for women in specific areas of academia (e.g., arts and education) and found that the menopausal experience and subsequent freedom associated with it, actually propagated their career succession, as with seniority came wisdom, experience and a vast intellectual base that is highly sought after within certain academic realms.

Despite this, women continue to be faced with cumulative disadvantage and many barriers along the road to career success. This can occur long before menopause, as pregnancy and child rearing are still widely viewed as major career interruptions, which can affect future opportunities for a woman, although there is more visibility around pregnancy than there is menopause. It would seem that because menopause is something that occurs within relative isolation to a woman’s body, and which has no perceived impact on the world around it, it is easier to silence. Menopause is not understood to be a ‘shared’ illness and is therefore considerably harder to empathise with for men or for women who have not yet experienced it. Conjointly, it is important to situate the role of women outside of the workplace by acknowledging the other various roles they are more likely to take on due to cultural and social norms, such as caring for elderly parents, raising young children ,or helping a loved one through disease and illness (or indeed dealing with an illness themselves), which require a great amount of time and focus. Our research demonstrated there was a keen feeling from women that with adequate support, they could continue working, but that often the support came too late or was not easy or straightforward to access. Other barriers include working in androcentric Faculties/areas that are confined to male ideals of separation of mind and body, and the acclamation of reason, logic and rationality.

Physical and Mental Health
Women described various levels of gender performance within the workplace, which required that they create, maintain or discard certain aspects of their femininity in order to strategically present a more malleable version of themselves. This was particularly evident in the more androcentric Faculties of Higher Education, such as science, medicine and engineering. These strategies were often used to divert attention away from the biological and aesthetic cultural signifiers of a woman’s body, which are still very much aligned with problematic behaviour, weakness and embarrassment. Taboo-reinforcing notions that women’s bodies are unclean and unpredictable are evident in the lack of discussion around feminine issues and associated products.  Although conversations were more likely to take place informally in predominantly female environments, hormonal events were still not formally addressed.

For these reasons, women were observed to have engaged in a significant amount of emotional and physical ‘work’ in order to separate their minds from their bodies. In doing so, they were able to maintain reward and recognition in their roles and pursue opportunities based on their ability to present a rational and unfettered self. Strategies for older women experiencing menopause included dying their hair to appear younger and dressing according to the standards that were often policed within certain faculties, such as not too feminine but not too masculine. The expression of one’s self through clothing was seen as an important site that either allowed or denied women access to various levels of inclusion. In this sense, we can see that a woman’s body is very much tied to her sexuality and the outward expression of a reproductive being, whereas men are allowed to grow old ‘gracefully’ and are not limited by productivity. Moreover, women in general were expected to perform above and beyond the circulating life events that exacerbate decreasing opportunities and diminished productivity, more so than their male counterparts. To negotiate these challenges, women preferred not to bring issues into the workplace because they felt perceptual bias may result in this disadvantaging their careers in some way, reinforcing a culture of silence.

Menopause – Symptoms
Because many women felt they were required to ‘hide’ any evidence of their ‘hormonal bodies’ by presenting an unproblematic self, the sudden onset of menopausal symptoms caused a great deal of distress and discomfort when visible symptoms revealed themselves. Symptoms are often so intense that resulting feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment are accompanied by loss of self-esteem and confidence. In the case of absence from work due to the severity of symptoms, women were more inclined to tell supervisors they had a cold rather than discuss their bodies. The unpredictable nature of symptoms also meant that women spent a lot of time and money making sure they were prepared for the inevitable hormonal episode, so as to diminish the anxiety associated with such events.

Conversely, not all women were found to have experienced menopausal symptoms and although hot flushes are associated as the most common and visible marker of menopause, this did not always occur. This denotes the heterogeneity of the menopausal experience, in that there are many variables that can affect the propensity and regularity of symptoms. Often, it can be the workplace itself that exacerbates symptoms due to increased stress and the changing nature of the academic and educational landscape. Symptoms that may have been manageable or even non-existent outside of work stress and career anxiety are therefore not always understood as being influenced by external factors. Additionally, around the median age of menopause (51 years for natural menopause, 46 years for surgical menopause), many women have significant life events that are occurring outside of work, which often coincide with an intensification of labour in their jobs due to increased responsibilities through career progression.

Menopause and Work
One of the major themes that emerged was the Faculty-specific aspects of how menopause is or is not discussed, and how highly disproportionate ratios of men or women in a Faculty affected the way in which women’s bodies were perceived. Older women were more likely to experience a greater sense of inclusion and opportunity from academic realms such as arts/education, and even within the realm of science, due to the perception that age brings wisdom and valuable intellectual agency. Similarly, women in senior professional roles were often perceived as bridging the gender/age gap, which provided hope for other women who are trying to ascend the upper echelons of professional academia. However, this was not always the case for women in certain fields, or at some levels of administrative/professional occupations, especially after a reaching a certain age. What this suggests is that certain areas are more likely to promote and foster intellectual ability over functional aspects of the organisation that are perceived to hold more value when a younger, more ‘productive’ demographic are performing those duties. Nevertheless, all this was more to do with gendered ageism and again, we are drawn back to the perceived ties between age and productivity and the situatedness of the menopausal woman within a framework of androcentrism.

Although menopause is not formally discussed within organisations, and the general perception by women is that it does not need to be discussed, there are obvious issues circulating within menopausal symptoms and workplace parameters. From a broad organisational perspective, practical matters such as adequate heating and cooling in office spaces so that body temperatures can be managed more effectively, do not appear to be addressed in a formal capacity. Given that this is one of the main grievances for a significant amount of the older female population, it should warrant greater attention. Although there was a dominant perception that menopause should not be singled out as an issue that needs special attention, women were quick to offer suggestions as to what might be useful, such as an information booklet, or by including menopause in the wider mental and physical well-being material. Women made it clear that they did not want to discuss their menopausal bodies with the organisation; however they seemed to infer that if the organisation took a proactive approach and the cultural perception of menopause shifted, it would significantly affect their work and career opportunities. Informal conversations around menopause already exist in some workplace environments, and those affected all cited difficulty in managing symptoms at certain times, thus affecting work performance. For this reason, menopause and the workplace are inextricably linked, even more so because of the silence and stigmatisation that it receives. From a broader cultural and social perspective, this silence speaks to a wider perception around women’s bodies and their position within patriarchal frameworks that serve to reinforce gendered gaps and tropes around ‘the weaker of the sexes’.

Workplace Conditions and Health
Flexible work practices and the ability to autonomously fulfil one’s role whilst managing factors such as the menopausal experience, significantly impacted women’s overall job satisfaction. Accessibility to private spaces, rescheduling meetings, increasing cooling within offices and working from home, all heavily influenced the way in which work was perceived as a supportive and accommodating environment, which encouraged greater loyalty and dedication. Women generally expressed relief at being able to discuss private matters with female colleagues and superiors and were more inclined to discuss menopausal issues with other women. Broadly, there were two reasons for this: 1) another woman was more likely to have a personal knowledge of the issue; and 2) men were less likely to understand hormonal issues and perceive it as a sign of female fragility. Such gendered assumptions were also evident from other women, especially those immersed in androcentric faculties, which denotes the internalisation process through which patriarchal norms are perpetuated. However, it also suggests that opportunities exist to provide men with spaces to discuss issues surrounding the body that may be valuable in terms of exploring areas of illness and health that may directly impact them (such as prostate issues).

It is evident that workplace conditions can greatly impact the menopausal experience. Menopause, a biological certainty for women, is not uniformly experienced by all women. It is therefore not appropriate to categorise women’s experience of menopause as homogenous in nature, as this ignores the subtleties of external factors that impact the severity of experience and the subjectivities of the individual. The women interviewed for The Prime Project described a rich landscape of personal and professional life experience, which mostly involved a great deal of emotional, physical, social, mental, domestic and familial work that was often understated and underestimated in their workplace. Indeed, the main reason for this was because they are ensconced within patriarchal structures; however many women were able to internalise certain gendered assumptions and work within these parameters so that their presentation strategies were concomitant with an unproblematic body, separated from the mind and unfettered by matters of the flesh. The fact that many women experienced menopause as a negative factor in their day-to-day work, denotes that although it is often stated as ‘not a problem’, it can clearly affect the workplace experience. The women in this study expressed an overall desire for organisations to inclusively provide information and training around the menopausal experience in a non-gendered way as part of a broader workplace health strategy, thus avoiding the often isolating experience of a woman’s body in the workplace that still exists.

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