Hot and Bothered: Menopause in the Workplace

I suppose I should begin with a trigger warning – this will make some people mad.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately calling for employers, healthcare providers, governments, even –  to “recognize” menopause.  It’s a big thing in some countries, where it is positioned as a workforce equity issue – women over 50 make up a large proportion of the workforce, and something like three quarters of women in this age group admit to calling in sick because of menopause-related issues, therefore employers have a duty to understand what menopause is, how it affects women, and to create formal policies and structures to address and accommodate it, or so the logic goes.

I see it differently.  In fact, before anyone rushes to advocate for similar policies in the U.S., I implore you to think carefully about what you’re asking for, because, well, I’m just going to say it: the whole thing makes zero sense.

First of all, menopause is a highly individual journey that looks different for every single woman, so what exactly do we want employers to be educated on – the fact that women’s bodies change as they age? That there is a period of time in which some of their female employees might gain weight or have hot flashes and brain fog or have a hard time concentrating for long periods of time and will probably have to pee more frequently the older they get? Um, okay. Except you’ve just described EVERY PERSON ON EARTH.

Secondly, and I think more importantly, as women we should be very careful about raising up the victim flag here and trying to create a special class or label for ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in discussing hot flashes with my employer.  Personal health issues are just that – personal – and do not require or warrant special understanding on the part of employers, unless or until those issues compromise one’s ability to do their job. This is as it should be.

By the time a woman faces menopause, she has decades of experience and expertise in the workplace, which is squarely where the focus should be.  Demanding that coworkers “recognize” and “understand” that her body and brain are changing as she ages sounds to me like one more reason to single women out as not quite up to the task.  It is creating an expectation that we will not be able to contribute 100% for some (possibly extended) period of time, and that is neither the message we want to send nor the truth of the matter.  It is nonsensical and the exact opposite of what we want happening at work.

I am pretty damn good at what I do – THAT is what I want to be known for.  If my employer is trying to work out whether or not I am having a hot flash every time I take off my sweater, or desperately trying to calculate how they will cover my government-mandated paid personal leave as soon as I hit 50, the conversation has gone in the wrong direction. 

Let’s think about what is truly needed here.  Might I use a sick day here and there because my menopause symptoms are acting up?  Yes, sure – that’s what they’re for.  Or an extra break maybe – but if I need to take a break to get it together and wipe down the sweat, I will take a break – no special policies required. 

Personally, I would find it horrifying to have the Menopause Police notified each time I had a hot flash.  I can just imagine the sideways glances and nudges from the younger people in the room, as they take mental note of the old lady that is obviously past her expiration date and start jockeying for position to fill my role.   What’s next – mandatory logging of our menstrual cycles? Many women do have painful periods – should those women be singled out and “recognized” as well?  Maybe we could wear a red patch on our clothing for one week every month so that people know we have our periods and will take it easy on us. 

I fear we’ve lost some perspective here in our rush to be ‘understood.’  

You may be uncomfortable, it may even go so far as to qualify as “suffering,” but does that really mean that you need an employer or government official to intervene on your behalf?  You are much more powerful and resourceful that that, it’s how you got to where you are in the first place.  And truly, there is next to nothing your boss can do to make you feel better anyway.

Ask yourself whether you want to be reduced to your biology or recognized for your capabilities in the workplace, because the answer is not “both” – you have to choose.  Before you answer, keep in mind that when you argue for your limitations, you ensure them.

I’m sure that this movement (if you can call it that) is borne of a sincere desire to help women, and I know as well as anyone that the struggle is real.  But it is also personal, so I object to my transition – or anything relating to my health, for that matter – being made fodder for public discussion and speculation.  Lumping all women over 50 together and labeling them as an afflicted class that requires special handling and accommodation doesn’t raise them up, it sets all of us back about a hundred years.

Here’s a better idea: let’s celebrate and respect women for the amazing contributions that they make every single day – in the workplace, at home, in the community.  Let’s watch out for and support each other and share information and resources generously.  Let’s encourage everyone we know, men and women alike, to ask for help when they need it; and when we see someone struggling, whether in our social circles or the office, lend a hand.  That’s real understanding, and it doesn’t happen through policies or legislation.

So to all those that would have my colleagues (or the whole world) attend a workshop to get educated on the horrors of menopause: please stop.  I’m doing just fine, thank you – my biology is none of your business.

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