Tackling a taboo subject for future generations of women

02 December 2021

Executive MBA participant, Alex Duncan, explores the work place challenges faced by menopausal and perimenopausal women. 

On the 29 October, MPs voted in favour of cutting the cost of menopause treatment (HRT) prescriptions so that women will only need to pay for their prescription once a year, saving up to about £200 a year. 

Coincidentally, I had just picked up my second prescription of HRT the day before and had had to double check the cost with the pharmacist as I was surprised I needed to pay two charges for the two drugs that constitute one prescription. Whilst I am fortunate enough that I can afford to pay for it, I can easily see how quickly these costs can add up over a year and how much this decision by MPs will save me over the course of my menopause journey, which could be 10 plus years. That £200 will quickly add up. 

This blog post was originally intended to be about the benefits of doing exercise for mental health and how participating in sports is linked to professional success for women and how we should be encouraging girls and women to take part in more sporting activity. The only problem was, I couldn’t summon the energy or enthusiasm to write the blog post. A feeling that has become increasingly prevalent in my life over the past year.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of menopause and perimenopause are so wide ranging and often vague that they can be confused with many other medical problems. I hadn’t been feeling myself for almost 12 months before realising that it could be perimenopause. During that time, I had Googled and investigated illnesses ranging from depression, long covid, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disease, RED-S, and many others. It wasn’t until I hit the magical age of 45 which is when you’re “allowed” to be considered as perimenopausal that I realised this might be the problem and that medical professionals were willing to entertain it. 

This post isn’t about the problems diagnosing and supporting women going through perimenopause and menopause in our healthcare system, nor is it about explaining what menopause is. I would recommend you watch Davina McCall’s documentary on All 4 here and visit the great Louise Newson’s Balance site to get more information about what it is and the challenges. 

But what I do want to do with this post is to get the discussion going and get people thinking about how we support women in work going through the menopause. Why is this important and why is this becoming an issue? Three reasons. First, menopausal women (50-64) is the fastest growing group in the labour market, made up of about 4.5 million women. Many companies, like the one I work for, can be predominantly weighted towards a female heavy workforce so this is becoming an issue. Secondly, as we think about addressing labour shortages, we need to think about what can be done to encourage women to stay working. An article by Manpower says that “Almost twice as many women as men considered leaving the workforce in 2020, with mothers 1.5 times more likely to have lost or quit their job than fathers since March 2020, and 25% more women kept on furlough than men”. And finally, if we want to truly encourage gender diversity at the most senior levels of the boardroom, we need to think about how we support women. Often the time that women are being considered for these positions is 45 plus and this is when perimenopause is starting to set in.

I can say from my own experience (at the age of 45) that I am definitely not feeling like myself at the moment. Unfortunately, the start of perimenopause for me seems to have coincided with COVID-19 and lockdown so it’s hard to isolate what is lockdown ennui and what is perimenopause.  However, I do know this. Two years ago, I was a CTO for a high growth PE backed company. I’d just completed a Half Iron man and was training six times a week. Since then, I have changed jobs twice. I’ve put on 10kg, I am on anti-depressants, and some mornings I stay in bed until about 15 minutes before my meetings start when I have the quickest shower, put on a nice top with my tracksuit bottoms and start my day of meetings working from home. And don’t even get me started on the naps I take during the day. 

I used to be the most motivated person I know yet my “get up and go” seems to have got up and gone. I am forcing myself to go into work twice a week, mainly to give myself a reason to put fitted trousers on and one of the reasons for choosing an Executive MBA was to try to and reignite my spark. I talk to myself each morning and think about what a good day looks like – often just crossing off a couple of things off my to-do list. Yes, I’m still holding down my job but it’s like wading through treacle many days. Everything is an effort. I started HRT almost three months ago and I’ve been told to give it a while. I had hoped it would be a magic potion that would have me bouncing out the door again, but it seems to be a lot more complex and nuanced than that.

Enough whinging from me though. How do we help people like me and the 50% of our workforce that are either going to experience this or are experiencing this? I wish I had all the answers but here are a few thoughts. First, it is still a taboo subject. I wouldn’t dream of telling my line manager.  I work in IT and of course, they are a man. We need to get to a point where it’s OK to talk about it. And that means education and training and people starting to talk about it. I’ve suggested a lunch and learn at my company to discuss this and I’m going to talk about my experiences. Secondly, it affects everyone in different ways. Given my ennui and lack of energy, I’m not sure I want  to be given any time off as I’m worried I won’t get out of bed BUT I can see that some symptoms could get so bad for some women that having time off could be helpful. Thirdly, flexible working will always help. I’m so tired all the time. 

What I can’t figure out is how, in a business world still led by men, I will ever be justifiably given a pass for losing my train of thought (brain fog!) or summoning up enough energy (extreme fatigue) to play the corporate game. In my opinion, this is another reason why we must have more gender diversity at work and in senior management. The more women we have in positions of responsibility, I’m confident we’ll figure out ways that organisations can support women as they reach this time of life. I’m excited to be part of figuring this out for future generations of women in the same way that the women before me demonstrated that you could have children and be successful professionally. But for now, I need a nap….

See our WBS Inspiring Women webpage here