According to new research, women of menopausal age fear age-based discrimination in the workplace and face a total lack of menopause-specific support from employers. Interdisciplinary research resulting from a collaboration amongst academics from Monash, La Trobe, and Yale Universities has found that many women were reluctant to speak with their managers about menopausal symptoms for the fear of being stereotyped as “old”.
The report found that menopause is a “silent issue” for most organisations, and older women represent a group whose working lives, experiences and aspirations are poorly understood by employers, national governments and academic researchers alike.
The study recommended that policy makers:
- Develop the business case approach to older women in the workplace surrounding resilience, knowledge and collegial labour as a significant factor in organisational success;
- Develop later-life work policies that take into account how changing personal circumstances and opportunities may reconfigure (which may be both challenging and positively related to career development) women’s employment perspectives;
- Promote career models that recognise and foster second or third career stage development;
- Provide resources for organisations to use that will facilitate and support, rather than ‘manage’, menopause, such as information sheets and examples of best practice;
- Consider the visibility of different working bodies and the subliminal messages that visual communication, figureheads and initiatives targeting particular groups (e.g. only images of young female workers or older females workings who ‘look’ young) may send.
The right to freedom from discrimination is internationally recognised as a human right, and older women are often the subjects of compounded forms of discrimination within and outside of the workplace. As one participant in the study said, “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 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” [Kirsty, 51].
The latest report of the UN’s Working Group on discrimination against women was the first to recognise the scarcity of attention that has been paid to the negative impacts of the business sector on women’s enjoyment of human rights. The report noted that women’s “quality of life in older age derives from the culmination of the earlier phases in their life cycle and bears their imprint”, and accordingly the treatment of older women “can be regarded as a litmus test for the quality of women’s economic and social life”.
To pass this litmus test, an inclusive workplace sensitive to the needs of older women is essential. Menopause is a significant life event that affects all women, and as workforces become older and more gender-representative, women’s health issues need to be increasingly mainstreamed in anti-discrimination and health and safety legislation.
However, as the interdisciplinary study shows, there is a long way to go, and progress will depend on a multi-stakeholder approach encompassing health and safety legislation, anti-discrimination policies, human resources management, government intervention, and international standards-setting bodies.