Professor Jo Brewis is Professor of People and Organisations in The Faculty of Business & Law at The Open University Business School. She is the co-author of the 2017 government report The effects of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK, together with colleagues Vanessa Beck from the University of Bristol, Andrea Davies, formerly of De Montfort University and Jesse Matheson of the University of Sheffield.
Here’s what she has to say about menopause in the workplace:
Why is it important for all employers to take menopause seriously?
It’s really important for all employers to take menopause seriously and there are four very strong reasons why it’s urgent and important now.
First is the demographic case. Essentially, here this means the numbers of people in the workforce. Midlife women in the UK and across the global north are the fastest-growing segment of our workforce and of course are also the people most likely to be going through menopause.
There’s a growing legal case, especially in the UK, where there have already been three successful tribunals. An employer losing an employment tribunal suffers reputational damage and costs.
Third, there’s the business case. This can be couched in terms of the knowledge and experience that walks out of the door if someone can’t cope with their job because of menopausal symptoms.
And finally, it’s just the right thing to do. From a corporate social responsibility point of view, taking menopause seriously is incredibly important in the same way we’ve been taking other issues and stages in women’s reproductive lives, like pregnancy and maternity, for decades now. The time has come to make menopause part of that list.
If we consider that in this country the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1975 you can see we’re a long way behind the curve with menopause.
What was your experience of menopause in the workplace campaigns?
These are really interesting, as very often you are pushing at an open door. Every time I’ve been active in workplaces, or talked about the importance of these sort of interventions, the room is always absolutely packed with people. You do get a little bit of pushback sometimes, from some men or younger women who don’t necessarily see the relevance of it as it’s not something that they’ve gone through or are going through at this point in time. And some mid-life women worry that too much attention to menopause can be detrimental to them.
But those voices are much quieter than the many I’ve heard in the sessions I’ve run, where women just feel so relieved and happy that this topic is out in the open. You can see people being moved to tears at times. That’s incredibly powerful and I feel very privileged to be part of this change.
I feel that for the first time in my academic life I’m making a difference and helping to change women’s lives for the better.
What surprised you most about employees’ reaction?
The thing that surprised me the most when we started doing this work, which was at the University of Leicester, was first of all just how many people were in the room when we held the launch event. There must have been around 150 people there, in a very busy working week, quite near to the start of term, which is always frenetic in universities. There was a lot of enthusiasm and excitement in the room.
The other thing that sticks out is a colleague who used to teach human biology to medical students wrote to me afterwards and said we had effectively shamed him, because he’d never spent much time on menopause in the teaching he did with his students, or in the textbook he’d written, of which he since has produced several new editions. That felt extremely powerful, that someone who understands human biology from a clinical point of view sees now how socially relevant certain reproductive stages can be.
Who do you think needs to know about menopause?
Everybody. I’d like to see it as part of either biology classes or sex education classes at school. I think everybody in the workplace needs to know that anybody with a particular sort of reproductive organs will experience this at some point in their lives. However, you identify in terms of gender, however old you are – all of us work with midlife women. Sometimes as a collaboration, sometimes as a manager, sometimes managing them.
This has proven to me just how important it is we get the message out there. One big problem about menopause, especially in the UK, is it is still quite taboo. And with a taboo subject there often comes a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping.
Where would you like to see us in five years’ time with menopause?
I think we’ve made an enormous amount of progress these past four or five years when you look at the number of organisations that have some form of menopause policy or guidance or a programme of support. I’d like us to get to a situation where it’s no more remarkable a topic of discussion at work than a woman announcing to her colleagues that she’s pregnant and will need to take some time off work.
It should be easy and comfortable for midlife women to disclose to whoever they choose to at work if they are having symptoms that make their working life difficult, or which their working lives are making more problematic, and completely remove the sensitivity around menopause at work.
What one thing would you say to someone thinking of starting a menopause campaign?
Very simply, I’d say do it! It’s very often the case in organisations that menopause campaigns begin with one person, they often become the ‘menopause champion’. But that takes quite a lot of guts and also time.
I think if anyone was interested in doing that kind of work I’d suggest reaching out to people around them and see if they want to join up. It can be quite difficult for one person to carry on their own. If there’s a group of people willing to push on what is very often an open door and make representation to HR, Occupational Health, and the quality, diversity and inclusion team.
Also, with the brilliant work done in the past five years, it’s a much more receptive environment. It really is music to midlife women’s ears to hear that somebody is determined to make this a topic of workplace conversation.