One of the major themes that emerged from the Prime Project findings was the Faculty-specific nature 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. As such, local organisational culture had a strong influence on women’s experience of menopause at work. For instance, women who worked in male-dominated areas such as science and engineering were more likely to identify the stigma associated with hormonal events, thus creating a silence around women’s bodies. Similarly, women who held demanding senior positions were more likely to express the belief that menopause is not an issue that requires discussion in the workplace as it would affect perceptions of their strengths and abilities.
“The women that come in in engineering in the first year, most of them […] talk about being the only girl in their class […] so broadly sweeping generalisation, but most women in engineering are the women that are happy to be one of the boys. That’s partly why there’s at most, 20 or 25% women, generally is because only a quarter of the population are okay to be so blooey and the rest decide that’s not a trade-off that they want to make.” (Hannah, 41, Academic at Uni B, pre-menopausal).
Conversely, Faculties such as arts or education that are predominantly female were more inclined to engage in informal discussions about menopause and the female experience. This does not denote that women were any more comfortable discussing menopause in a formal capacity at work than their science and engineering counterparts; however, it did suggest that women’s bodies were certainly less stigmatised and silenced.
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask them really. Look I’ve worked mostly in health sciences, social sciences. The men are few and far between and the men that are working in those areas are probably, I would say, more sensitive to, and accepting of, a range of issues” (Alisha, 43, Professional at Uni A, pre-menopausal).
Time of Life
Menopause usually occurs around an age that can be pivotal and significantly marked in a woman’s life. It was found that often there were other significant events that took place outside of the workplace and the menopausal experience itself, which required an enormous amount of mental and emotional energy to successfully manage, whilst also maintaining their careers. Caring for elderly parents, or the subsequent death of parents, were perhaps the most prominent features that came to light.
“I think apart from menopause […] primary care for members of their family. How many older women are caring for their parent or going through the processes of you know getting parents into hospitals or retirement villages? I know I did that with my grandma because my parents are in their seventies” (Bella, 53, Professional at Uni A, post-menopausal).
There was wide agreement that women were more likely to engage in the emotional and nurturing work in the domestic sphere. For example, it often became incumbent upon them to take on the role of carer and nurturer for their elderly parents and coming to terms with ‘the realisation that you’re the parent of your parent’. The weight of juggling these issues as well as managing their career and work expectations became evident throughout the interviews.
“Well often (staff are) distracted. It’s unpredictable because they actually don’t know what’s going to happen because (their parents) might be in care, they might fall, they might wander off. Staff have to go home because their parent has wondered off somewhere. […] It’s that realisation that you’re becoming a parent, that you were the child for so long and now you’re the parent of your parent” (Fiona, 52, Academic at Uni A, post-menopausal).
There were also many other time of life aspects, such as relationship breakdown and divorce; increased instances and effects of disease in friends, family and own self (such as cancer); increased responsibilities at work; young children; and other hobbies or interests outside of work. Conversely, there were also positive associations with this time of life, such as a time for deep personal reflection which provided a sense of inner connectedness to the world; the experience of ‘empty nesting’ and the freedom and relaxation that comes from older children leaving the home; and the thrill of having arrived at a senior level in their careers, thus earning respect and recognition. This is an important time in a woman’s career life because they often encounter many barriers to success along the way, especially when pursuing academic and professional careers.
Gendered Ageism and Invisibility
Throughout the data, menopause was frequently reported as circulating within gendered ageism and invisibility, or the ‘disappearing of women’. This was experienced differently in each job classification, academic or professional, and varied depending on which Faculty one was employed in. For instance, the arts/education-based Faculties were more likely to embrace and celebrate women with vast knowledge and experience and continue to value their contribution to academic enquiry. However in other Faculties, such as science and engineering, it was much harder for women to attain senior positions after a certain age.
“I think there is a perception that there is a greater emphasis on the younger generation. […] I don’t know whether that’s happening within my own Faculty or if it’s happening across the University” (Valerie, n/a, Academic at Uni B, post-menopausal).
“Whatever the University says about older people, they don’t really want them. […] Part of it is they don’t want old people but the other side of it too is […] there’s no spots for younger people, and the degree to which older people continue to work and occupy these spots, there are fewer positions so it is, I think, a pretty serious issue.” (Penny, 61, Academic at Uni B, post-menopausal).
Strong themes emerged relating to the gendered nature of certain areas within the organisations that were dominated by men, and although certain faculties were predominantly more female, the further up in the grading system women were, the less likely they were to be surrounded by other women and even less likely, older women. One participant commented on the shock she experienced when first settling in Australia, at the lack of visibility of women in senior management positions on boards and in organisations across Australia. However, it was the use of the term ‘invisible’ that really stood out from the data, in which women felt once they had reached menopausal age, they were no longer physically or intellectually desired and this manifested in day-to-day work interactions.
“I think it should be a time of recognition of a different age of a woman, but I think it’s more a disappearing of women. I’m not sure that I feel that way necessarily but certainly with the job cuts looming I do. I have had thoughts that maybe I would be less able to be employed because of my age. […] I think that generally menopausal women are invisible, certainly as objects of beauty.” (Kirsty, 51, Academic at Uni A, peri-menopausal).
What would help?
Some women felt that there should not be an individual policy in place for ‘hormonal issues’ such as menopause, as this is a highly individual and private experience and wondered if there are policies for women then organisations will also have to make certain policies for men: “I think we could end up policing ourselves into not being able to actually function”. Different cultural aspects were also cited as potential stumbling blocks for workplace discussions around women’s bodies and functions. For this reason, some women suggested a more holistic approach rather than a direct approach singling menopause out.
“Not a formal role, maybe an informal role. If you noticed, you know, the person’s taking minutes or whatever or they’ve started to go through a hot flush – which in itself that would be embarrassing for that poor person because it’s totally out of their control – be sympathetic. Turn around and take over their job while they go and cool off or something like this or let them open windows or whatever, but nothing formal. I think it’s just sheer manners and consideration that you’d show to anybody.” (Helen, 53, Professional at Uni A, pre-menopausal).
The general consensus was that menopause is something that will inevitably affect everyone in some way, women through their own experiences or others, and men perhaps at some point through their experiences with their wives, sisters and mothers. Almost all participants agreed that there should be more support and information for managers so they can be better equipped to handle conversations relating to menopause. One participant suggested that a booklet might be useful, similar to those that disseminate information about mental health or domestic violence issues. Other suggestions included adequate heating and cooling in offices, greater flexibility in working arrangements (although these were noted as generally very accessible already), and a general attitude shift away from women’s hormonal transition as being perceived as weak or a barrier to a successful career.
“Yeah I do think it’s a workplace issue […] like if someone is going through a personal problem obviously it has an effect on their performance and obviously has effect on their emotions and their ability to perform, so it’s a similar sort of concept I think. […] It would be worthwhile I guess making sure that we’ve got support networks and mechanisms in place to support these women who are actually going through that to ensure that business is getting the most out of their people as well as looking after their people so it’s kind of in their benefit.” (Tina, 29, Professional at Uni A, pre-menopausal).
There were many different strategies that women employed to assist with making their menopausal experience less interruptive during work hours. Strategies such as having a fan in the office, wearing layers of clothing for easy removal, closing the office door, eating a better diet and attending the gym regularly were found to be strategies that were easily carried out on a personal level. With respect to the workplace, job autonomy and workplace flexibility scored as the main contributing factors that determined a woman’s experience of menopausal symptoms at work. The ability to reschedule meetings and manage their time better and more effectively, such as working around days when symptoms were particularly bad, provided much relief from the demands of hormonal upheaval.
“So I spoke to my managing director […] I asked to work at home with my air conditioning. I got a really bad response, I wasn’t allowed to, I had to come in. So sitting in a room with a fan in my face and, you know, the temperature creeping up to 32 degrees, it was really awful. I mean other people were suffering too, but I’m sort of renowned for being more sensitive to heat than everyone else in this building, or on this floor.” (Diana, 51, Professional at Uni B, peri-menopausal).
“I keep deodorant, actually I suddenly realised I had deodorant at every single possible location, at home, in the car, in my bag, in my office, and I was putting it was on all the time and it wasn’t making any difference.” (Hannah, 41, Academic at Uni B, pre-menopausal).