The Unspoken Challenge: Menopause in the Workplace

By Natalie Chapman

As I reflect on my journey through menopause and its impact on my professional life, I’m struck by the silence that shrouds this natural phase of life, especially for women in STEM. The facts are stark and telling: women of menopausal age represent the fastest-growing workforce demographic. By 2030, 25 percent of the female population is expected to be menopausal, enduring symptoms that last, on average, seven years. Yet, this transition, with all its complexity, remains a taboo topic, leading to a significant talent drain in industries where women’s contributions are critically needed.

The High Cost of Silence

Women in STEMM conducted a survey as the basis of a submission to the government inquiry into peri-menopause and menopause (PM&M) and its impact into workforce participation. The findings shed light on a distressing reality: 76 percent of respondents reported PM&M symptoms, 47 percent said it impacted their ability to participate in the workforce, and 59 percent said it impacted their mental health. Even more alarming, 81 percent highlighted a lack of awareness or discussion about PM&M symptoms in their workplace. This silence has tangible repercussions, with Australian companies losing more than $10 billion a year due to women leaving work prematurely because of menopause-related symptoms.

In the STEM sector, where a skills shortage looms large, retaining experienced and senior staff is as crucial as attracting new talent. Yet, as the survey reveals, we are failing to support women through this critical life stage, risking not only their careers but the industry’s future.

My Personal Awakening

My own realisation of being peri-menopausal came unexpectedly. Despite experiencing symptoms like irregular periods, hot flushes, and debilitating “brain fog”, I was oblivious to their significance. The latter, in particular, was terrifying. I’ll never forget being in a business meeting and, when asked a question, my mind went blank. I was terrified that I was showing signs of early dementia – this “brain fog” shattered my confidence, leading me to question my capabilities as a company leader. I was disappointed that various doctors had not made me aware of menopause as being the factor behind my symptoms.

It was only through a colleague’s advice that I discovered hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a revelation that significantly alleviated my symptoms. HRT has been life changing for me. This experience was a wake-up call, highlighting not just the physical challenges of menopause but the profound lack of awareness and open discussion about it.

Breaking the Silence

The prevailing silence around menopause is rooted in ageism and the historical diminishment of women’s experiences. From being the butt of jokes about periods to discrimination for potential maternity leave, women’s biological realities have been weaponised against them. The reluctance to discuss menopause is another facet of this issue, with many fearing it will age them or mark them as less capable.

Yet, my journey and the stories of countless others underscore the urgent need for change. Awareness and education about menopause should be as much a priority as initiatives to attract and retain women in STEM fields. By opening up about our experiences, we can dispel myths, foster support, and ensure that women do not feel compelled to leave their careers prematurely.

A Call to Action

As we work towards a more inclusive and supportive workplace, it’s crucial to integrate menopause awareness into diversity and inclusion policies. Companies must provide education, support, and accommodations for those going through menopause, recognising it as a natural life stage, not a weakness.

The talent and expertise of senior women in STEM are invaluable. By retaining these experienced professionals, we enrich our workplaces and ensure a more diverse, innovative, and competitive industry. Let’s make menopause an open topic of discussion, free from stigma and ignorance. Together, we can create a culture that supports women through all stages of their careers, ensuring that they not only enter but thrive and lead in STEM fields.

As I continue to share my story, I’m encouraged by the conversations it starts. These discussions are the first step toward a workplace that understands and supports menopause, not as a liability but as a shared human experience. It’s time we embrace this natural phase of life and ensure that no woman feels compelled to leave her job because of menopause. Let’s break the silence and build a more inclusive future for all.

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