One U.K. professor is encouraging university staff to say the word three times a day.
We barely know how to talk about Aunt Flo visiting, let alone vanishing forever.
So Andrea Davies, an associate professor of marketing and consumption at the U.K.’s University of Leicester — reportedly the first in the country to develop a formal menopause policy — is trying to rid the stigma around menopause by encouraging university staff to say the word three times a day.
“You feel a bit tentative the first couple of times, but now people talk about menopause quite easily in conversation,” she told the BBC. “So just try it. Not ‘the M word,’ it has to be full ‘menopause.’ Say ‘menopause’ three times a day, and start breaking down the taboo and the barriers.”
While it’s “tough to get nuance across” while tackling topics like this, Davies likely doesn’t mean, “Sit in your cubicle and incant ‘menopause,’” Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, told Moneyish. “What she means is, ‘Let’s be sensitive and compassionate, and let’s shed the stigma.’ … That’s something everyone can do.”
Menopause, the permanent end to menstruation that occurs after a woman has no period for 12 months, hits at the average age of 52 in the U.S. — but the transition leading up to menopause, called perimenopause, can begin several years earlier. Shifting hormone levels during menopause can yield symptoms like hot flashes and heavy sweating, trouble sleeping, brain fogginess, urinary problems and mood swings. About 6,000 women in the U.S. reach menopause daily, according to 2011 figures from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
And women are increasingly continuing to work after traditional retirement age: About one in seven women worked past age 65 in 2016, per the Wall Street Journal, compared to one in 12 women in 1992. More Americans say they expect to retire after 65 than those who predict they’ll retire before then, according to a 2017 Gallup poll.
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But a certain discomfort lingers around menopause, an issue affecting many working women. “I think the discomfort lies at the intersection of a couple different things,” Bobel said. “One, of course, is discomfort about bodies more generally, especially the function of women’s bodies.” The other part, she said, is that “we don’t take women seriously as they age.” “We find them kind of disposable or marginal — so it doesn’t surprise me that something that impacts older women in particular would be not only a discomfort, but a nonconcern,” she said. “(Women’s) value is pegged to their femininity and their fertility.”
Bobel, 55, says she’s been open with students as her own menopause symptoms strike during class — reasoning that “it’s important for students who are mostly in their 20s to see menopause out loud, without shame.” “If you don’t understand something, it’s very hard to have compassion about it,” she said. “Depending on the situation, I could actually give them more information (or) would give opportunities to ask questions — or they would simply watch someone, a real-life person, have a hot flash.”
Judy Herbst, the 55-year-old director of PR and partnerships for Worthy, a New York-based online luxury auction marketplace for selling jewelry, found her own menopausal sisterhood within a workplace full of under-40 folks. Much of the business’s audience, for whom Herbst regularly coordinates events, is divorced women in their late 40s. “I think by embracing this community of women, it’s made me more comfortable and confident,” she said. “This is what our customers are going through, and I’m going through it, so it makes sense not to hide it any longer.”
Other workplaces can feel less welcoming. Chicago entrepreneur Dana Todd hit full-blown menopause in 2010 at age 45. She worked at a large agency over the next few years, and while her CEO was a woman around her own age, most of the U.S. executive and leadership team was men and 30-something women. “During this time, my hot flashes were largely controlled by (hormone-replacement therapy), but I was having some cognitive hiccups and impatience in dealing with others,” Todd told Moneyish. “It wasn’t debilitating, but it certainly was unnerving in a new job. I didn’t feel I could share openly about my hot flashes and ‘blonde’ moments with my boss, though, for fear she’d think I was losing my edge.”
While her “brain returned to normal” by 2013, the added stress of her subsequent job as CMO of a national remediation services company brought on more frequent sleep disruptions and hot flashes — and during one “intense” board meeting, Todd said, she experienced a sudden hot flash. “The CEO noticed, thought I was having some kind of medical situation and asked me if I was going to pass out,” she said. “I was so embarrassed, I just played it off, but could barely make eye contact with anyone for the rest of the meeting. I couldn’t say it was a hot flash, because I feared I’d lose my power position during our discussions.”
Since menopause-related symptoms aren’t covered under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, HR consultant and Exaqueo CEO Susan LaMotte told Moneyish, “it’s really important to think about asking (your employer) for flexibility.” You might also ask for a workspace with room for a fan; see if you can have a small, portable A/C in your office; or inquire about relaxing certain dress-code requirements, she said.
Bobel suggested asking for a flexible break schedule or opportunities to work from home, and “also for employers to model for their workforce that it’s OK to take these breaks.” Such accommodations aren’t unique to the menopausal body, she added: “There’s all kinds of bodies that need that kind of flexibility — people living with chronic disease, people with diabetes, people with arthritis,” she said. “Workplaces just need to be responsive to the needs of different bodies.” Above all, she added, employers need to ask employees what would make them more comfortable.
And that change could begin with menopausal women feeling more at ease to talk about their experiences. “It’s not a moral deficit; it’s simply a life phase — and good things come with it, as well,” said 54-year-old Lizbeth Meredith, an author and probation supervisor from Anchorage, Alaska. “I just wish we could talk about it a little more easily. Not constantly — but a little more easily, without concern.”
Herbst says she’s proud of her company for shifting the dialogue around divorce to focus on embracing life’s next chapter. “Maybe the next conversation I would want us to change is … the conversation around aging. How can businesses embrace age?” she said. “Because we’re not retiring — and I feel I’m at my best right now.”
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