For too long, women have been sidelined or even sacked for struggling with the menopause. But as more and more take their bosses to tribunals, ELEANOR MILLS issues a rousing battle cry… I am not a walking hot flush!
- Growing number of women are claiming unfair dismissal linked to menopause
- One in four women in the UK consider leaving their job as a result of symptoms
- Eleanor Mills shares horror stories from women who’ve been made redundant
- 50-year-old says she doesn’t want to be seen as a pitiable walking hot flush
Katie was exhausted. She’d always been blessed with huge amounts of energy — it was what got her through running a university admissions office while raising two teenagers and looking after her mum.
But the batteries were running down as she got closer to the menopause. She was only 47 but some days felt like an old woman.
It was the lack of sleep killing her. She’d sleep for maybe an hour then be wide awake, sweating, heart pounding. She’d never been an anxious type, but now feelings of near panic came in shuddering waves.
It was true she’d called in sick a few times. She hated doing that. But when Katie asked her boss for flexible working till she felt better, he was not sympathetic. Then she took two weeks of unpaid leave to look after her mum who had had a fall.
Eleanor Mills shared horror stories from women who’ve had their careers affected by menopause (file image)
Back in the office after the most stressful fortnight, she lost her temper with a colleague and was put on a ‘performance improvement plan’. Soon, she was told she was at risk of redundancy and would have to re-apply for her job (and pooled with a younger, cheaper colleague . . .).
So Katie found herself at 49 with no job, the career she loved gone.
I have changed Katie’s name to protect her, but she could be any of us. This month, it was revealed a growing number of women are claiming unfair dismissal or sex discrimination by employers linked to the menopause.
Last year, 16 employment tribunals made reference to the claimant’s menopause, and there have been ten between January and June this year. Women increasingly feel empowered to challenge employers who do not understand the impact the menopause can have.
The reality of menopause in the workplace is stark. Recent research found the UK could be losing 14 million work days a year related to menopause and one in four women consider leaving their job as a result of (frequently undiagnosed and untreated) symptoms.
Often, symptoms of heart palpitations, anxiety, lack of sleep, low/angry mood, hot flushes and joint pain ambush women. Joanna, a high-flying IT consultant I know, one day found herself ‘epicly losing my rag when the tech team said they were off schedule’.
‘I yelled in the meeting, felt red with fury,’ she said. ‘I had a reputation for being fair and friendly — shortly afterwards I was made redundant, there had been whispers I was past my sell-by date because I looked exhausted and kept having time off.’
Dr Nighat Arif, a GP and menopause specialist, claims one in four women can become suicidal from the depression menopause can create (file image)
Another woman, writing in to the midlife website I run called Noon, said she just felt all the joy had gone out of her life, she couldn’t see the point any more. Her GP gave her anti-depressants which made her feel like ‘my body was a log I was lugging around’. She could no longer cope with her job as a lawyer and resigned.
‘My firm had no policy around menopause. When I said I was hot in a meeting, all the men laughed. I just couldn’t take it any more, particularly as my eldest child was unwell. It was like a perfect storm. And I felt I couldn’t talk about it. That there was no protection.’
While it is illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, race, gender, age, disability and pregnancy, menopause is not a protected characteristic. It is only in the past few years the subject has been mentioned at all.
Even doctors aren’t experts —many were not taught about menopause management at all during their GP training, according to Dr Nighat Arif, a GP and menopause specialist.
‘One in four can become suicidal from the depression menopause can create. Yet 25 per cent of women who need hormone replacement therapy are given anti-depressants instead. It’s a disgrace,’ she says.
Caroline Nokes MP, chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, has launched an inquiry into how menopausal women are being failed in the workplace (file image)
Thankfully this is beginning to change. More conversation around menopause is leading women to protest about the paucity of treatment. Caroline Nokes MP, chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, has just launched an inquiry into how menopausal women are being failed in the workplace.
About time too! I hear too many horror stories about women whose work lives fell apart during their menopausal years. One minute they are holding their busy lives together then menopause knocks their confidence (you try getting perimenopausal brain fog on live television, as I recently did).
Hormonal changes around menopause can also be immense.
A post-menopausal woman’s testosterone level often rises and with it can come a more bullish attitude. In my experience, women in midlife become less anxious to please the men around them just as they become less physically ‘pleasing’. So perhaps it’s not surprising male-dominated workplaces often replace them with a younger model. Too often, women are viewed as peaches — one wrinkle and it’s all over, while men of the same age are seen, like wine, to improve with age.
This is nonsense. At 50, many women are on top of their game, coming into their prime, particularly professionally. Yet, 150 years after women got the vote, only 20 per cent of bosses are female (eg, in the FTSE 100, and only six per cent of CEOs are women).
Eleanor wants women to get the right treatment for menopausal symptoms so they can get on with making the most of the time they have left (file image)
Why? Well, just when women should be breaking through into top jobs, a mix of ageism, sexism and mistreated and undiagnosed menopausal symptoms are knocking them out of the running.
Midlife women don’t want to pander to male egos any longer — hence are seen as suddenly ‘difficult’ — and aren’t as decorative as they used to be, so they leave to run their own show or get whacked. In the pandemic, this trend was exacerbated, as redundancy among the over-50s increased by 50 per cent, with women hit hardest.
I welcome the new conversation about menopause. Not because I want to be defined by my biology — I didn’t when I was a teenager or pregnant with my children, and now I am 50, I don’t want to be seen as a pitiable walking hot flush. But I do want women to get the right treatment for menopausal symptoms so they can get on with making the most of the time they have left.
We need new narratives about the latter stages of women’s lives which reflect the reality that nearly a fifth of my generation don’t have children, that there are 4.5 million of us in the workplace, half of us are the main breadwinners in our families and we control most of the spending decisions.
For too long, we have been ill-served by doctors, discriminated against at work and suffered in silence. Not any more. This wave of menopause discrimination cases is only the beginning.
So watch out, chaps, the call for proper treatment of midlife women at work is only the beginning. We are just getting started . .
ELEANOR MILLS is founder and editor-in-chief of Noon (noon.org.uk), a platform for women in midlife.
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