Home » Menopause, stigma and workplace policy 

Menopause, stigma and workplace policy 

by Madaline Dunn

For a long time, menopause has been dismissed, misunderstood, and under-researched. It’s been talked about in hushed tones – if talked about at all. But, it’s an experience that can be life-changing, and in the workplace, women are chronically unsupported.

As discussions around menopause slowly come to the fore, ESG Mena looks at how things are changing in the region.

Women unsupported in the workplace

A recent UCL-led study found that nine in ten women were never educated about the menopause. This trend is seen globally, even among medical professionals, who have been found to “lack adequate education” on menopause. This means women are often unprepared for the potential impacts of the menopause, and it undoubtedly plays into how menopause symptoms are perceived and treated. 

Menopause typically occurs between 45-55, but it can happen earlier. It signals the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle, and symptoms can include everything from hot flashes and sleep problems to depression. 

In fact, research indicates that 80-90% experience some symptoms, with over 25% of women describing these symptoms as “severe” and “debilitating.”

Further, research from Carrot found that 80 per cent of women find it challenging to manage their menopause at work. And here, top interferences include a loss of concentration and lower confidence due to menopause stigma.

Indeed, symptoms can be so severe (and workplaces so unsupportive) that women leave their jobs. The Fawcett Society, for example, reports that one in ten women working during their menopause leave their jobs due to their symptoms.

Navigating stigma

On top of the physical and mental health challenges many women face during their menopause, stigma and sexism mean women have even more to grapple with.

Menopause, for a long time, has had negative connotations, whether that’s being linked with “hysteria” or “incompetence.” And this seeps into the workplace, too, in both subtle and overt ways. 

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University, for example, found that menopausal women are perceived as “less confident” and “less emotionally stable” than non-menopausal women.

It’s no wonder, then, that women in the workplace feel unable to talk about their experiences or feel pressured to minimise their symptoms.

In fact, one study from Lime Solicitors in the UK found that 44 per cent of the women it surveyed “suffer in silence” out of fear that going through the menopause will negatively impact their careers. 

And while menopause stigma permeates all countries, it manifests in different ways and to varying degrees depending on geography and culture.

For example, in China and Japan, according to Pilar Rojas-Gaviria from the University of Birmingham, menopause tends to be a “more welcome experience.”

Adding: “The terms “second spring” or “rebirth,” are frequently associated with menopause in the literature of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture and suggest a positive transition.”

In contrast, in the Middle East, menopause is referred to as the ‘age of despair’ or sin al-yaas in Arabic. 

However, this term, one with obvious negative connotations, is increasingly being rejected by women in the region.

The age of renewal

Back in 2021, TENA, a global adult incontinence brand, conducted a survey of 600 Saudi women aged forty and over to gain insight into women’s thoughts on the portrayal of menopause and the stigma associated with it.

Conducted in partnership with YouGov, the survey found that 81 per cent wanted the term ‘Age of Despair” to be changed and updated.

When asked which words more positively describe this age, respondents selected words such as “confidence”, “happiness”, “empowered” and “wise.”

Having collected these responses, TENA launched its regional campaign to shift how menopause and incontinence – something which affects between 30-40 per cent of menopausal women – are perceived in the region.

Yosra Embabi, TENA Marketing Manager for Middle East and Africa, was the local lead for the ‘Despair No More’ Campaign and said that as a brand, TENA wanted to erase the term’ age of despair’ forever.

The team launched an originally composed track, written and performed by singer-songwriter Ghalia, called ‘Despair No More,’ which was released on Anghami, the leading music streaming platform in MENA, as well as a mini content series sharing women’s experiences.

The campaign opened up the conversation about menopause, and Embabi explained that while there was a mixed reaction at first, after the dust had settled, it reached 95 per cent positive sentiment on social media, with people liking and sharing the content and influencers reaching out. 

Further, she outlined that as a result of the campaign, the words ‘menopause’ and ‘incontinence’ began to trend in Saudi Arabia.

The team heard from thousands of women, who shared their experiences and submitted their suggestions for alternative phrases, with the ‘Age of Renewal’ being the term that was ultimately chosen.

The campaign had such an impact that Al Maany, the number one Arabic dictionary in the region, also changed the term to ‘Age of Renewal’ in the dictionary.

Movement toward progress

While campaigns like the one led by TENA are encouraging more open discussion and acceptance around menopause, companies like Dubai-based TishTash, a communications and public relations agency, are driving forward change in the workplace.

In 2023, TishTash introduced paid time off and support for miscarriage, menopause and menstruation – a first-of-its-kind policy in the region.

Speaking about her decision to introduce the policy, Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, Founder and CEO, said: “When International Women’s Day came around this year and as an employer with an exclusively female workforce (58 women and counting), we wanted to make a direct change and start a step change regionally when it comes to women’s health needs and the challenges faced by all women at various life and career stages.”

As per the policy, staff members can avail up to six days of menopause (and menstrual) leave per year. This is also separate from an employee’s personal or sick leave.

“As we all try to encourage more women into leadership roles and see better board representation – doesn’t it make sense to support and retain these women at this vital career stage, and keep all of those years of vital experience within our businesses?” said Hatherall-Shawe.

As for those who question the financial cost, Hatherall-Shawe said the price of paid leave is “minuscule” in the bigger picture. 

“The cost of paid leave against operations and productivity is far outweighed by the positive loyalty and goodwill garnered. Truly, ignoring the needs and wants of your workforce in 2023 is one of the most expensive mistakes you can make.”

Hatherall-Shawe said that within twenty-four hours of the announcement, the company received one thousand CVs from women who had experienced “terrible working practices against their own healthcare needs at non-progressive companies,” which reveals just how widespread the issue is and how great the demand is for more inclusive workplace policies.

Companies like TishTash are truly spearheading progress here, but both regionally and internationally, progress remains slow.

Just recently, in a highly publicised move, the UK government rejected proposals to include menopause as a protected characteristic, alongside other proposals such as creating model menopause policies for employers and trialling menopause leave policy in the public sector. 

And, while we’re seeing more companies prioritise menopause policy, including Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank and Deloitte, they’re in the minority.

But, this is a central part of inclusion and vital to retaining women in the workforce.

As Hatherall-Shawe notes: “For businesses and again, society as a whole, we have to recognise the benefits that the female workforce bring, and alongside that, support them transparently, where they really need it.”

Adding: “There is no better time than now for other companies to take note and start to create a real difference here.”

By Madaline Dunn, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena

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