Workplace Stigma Around Menopause Is Real

For half the global population, menopause is a natural part of life. It also happens to overlap exactly with the age at which employees are most likely to be qualified to advance into top leadership positions — and the authors’ new research shows that people experiencing menopause are often judged as less leader-like, thus creating yet another barrier that holds women back in the workplace. However, the authors also found that when women talk openly about going through menopause, it can reduce this bias, helping them to come across as having high leadership potential regardless of menopausal status. As such, the authors suggest that managers must normalize the open discussion of menopause (since many women are afraid to mention such a stigmatized topic at work), create psychologically safe workplaces that empower everyone to share and ask for support without fear of retribution or discrimination , and proactively ensure that all employees feel supported — not silenced — as they progress through the phases of their careers and lives.

In the United States, the average CEO is hired at the age of 54. For many of us, middle age promises to be the peak of our careers, in which decades of hard work finally pay off and we are seen as having the expertise, self-confidence, and stability necessary to move into high-level management and leadership roles. But for half the population, middle age also means another major shift: menopause.

The menopausal transition — that is, the period in which reproductive hormone levels become highly variable and menstruation cycles eventually cease — typically starts between the ages of 45 and 55, and lasts around seven years. During this time, women (or anyone with female anatomy) experience a range of symptoms, including both relatively hidden changes such as depression, sleep issues, and mood shifts, as well as the much more visible symptoms of hot flashes: unpredictable moments of overheating , flushing, and perspiration. And while the invisible symptoms are no less significant, many people are particularly embarrassed to experience hot flashes at work out of concern that being visibly “outed” as menopausal might harm their careers. But is this fear warranted?

To better understand the impact of hot flashes in the workplace, I conducted a series of studies (in collaboration with my colleagues, Terri Frasca, Vanessa Burke, Didar Zeytun, and Jes Matsick) exploring the stereotypes associated with menopause, the potential costs to women’s careers, and strategies to help men and women alike overcome these biases.

Women Experiencing Menopause Seem Less Leader-Like…

In our first study, we asked 300 US-based full-time workers to share their first impressions of a hypothetical coworker who was described as “a menopausal woman,” “a middle-aged woman,” or “a middle-aged man. ” And in our next study, we had nearly 200 college students read a workplace scenario involving a middle-aged woman described as having menopausal hot flash symptoms, a middle-aged woman without symptoms, or a middle-aged man. In both experiments, the participants reported that the menopausal women seemed less confident and less emotionally stable (two traits we’ve shown to be associated with leadership) than the non-menopausal women — despite the scenarios being otherwise identical.

…Unless They Talk About Menopause Openly

The good news is, our next several studies identified an effective strategy to overcome this bias. We asked more than 240 full-time workers to imagine that they were attending a meeting in which a female, middle-aged colleague was observed having a hot flash: She was visibly uncomfortable, flushing, fanning herself, and wiping sweat from her face. In one scenario, when a coworker asked how she was doing, she said, “I’m ok, just warm,” while in the other scenario, she replied, “I’m ok, it’s just that menopausal time of life.” When the woman openly disclosed that her symptoms were caused by menopause, she was seen as more confident, stable, and leader-like than when she claimed to be “just warm.”

We also determined that this effect held regardless of the woman’s race, or the gender makeup of the group: We tested scenarios in which the woman was explicitly described either as Black or white, as well as scenarios in which the meeting was either evenly split between men and women or male-dominated, and the participants consistently thought that the menopausal women were more leader-like if they openly disclosed that they were having a hot flash.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, our first study showed that there are clear negative stereotypes associated with being menopausal. But our analysis suggests that the act of disclosing your own menopausal status conveys confidence and stability, essentially canceling out the negative biases that people would otherwise hold.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just that people appreciate getting an explanation for what’s going on: In another scenario, participants were told to imagine that a colleague explained that the woman’s symptoms were due to menopause, rather than the woman explaining the symptoms herself. These participants knew that the woman’s symptoms were menopausal, and yet they still rated her as less leader-like. This suggests that simply educating people about what hot flashes look like isn’t enough to overcome biases — to boost perceptions of leadership potential, self-disclosure is critical.

Normalizing Menopause at Work

Of course, while the benefits of talking openly about menopause (and other workplace taboos) are clear, many people are still understandably uncomfortable doing so. A recent survey of women in the UK found that almost half didn’t feel comfortable disclosing their menopausal status at work, and in our own survey of nearly 100 women, about a third said they wouldn’t talk about menopause at work, a third would share only with specific people, and just a third would disclose openly. While some women felt that it was important to connect authentically with their colleagues about this “natural part of aging,” those who felt less comfortable discussing menopause in the workplace expressed fears of discrimination and embarrassment.

As such, to overcome bias against people experiencing menopause, it will be critical to build workplace cultures that encourage talking about it openly. Our research shows that especially for women who are actively striving to become leaders, acknowledging hot flashes when they happen and simply stating — without embarrassment or shame — that they are due to menopause is an effective way to demonstrate self-confidence and leadership potential. Moreover, each time someone talks openly about menopause, they normalize the experience and make it easier for others to follow suit.

At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that it isn’t the sole responsibility of people experiencing menopause to address these issues. Managers should strive to create psychologically safe workplaces in which everyone feels safe to disclose issues and ask for support without fear of retribution or discrimination. To foster this type of workplace, leaders can start by being open about their own lives (whether with regard to menopause or other circumstances) and clearly demonstrating a willingness to listen to and learn from others’ experiences. They can also help by supporting employee resource groups (ERGs), providing educational resources to help everyone learn about the impact of menopause, offering accommodations such as cooler temperatures and fans, and most importantly, proactively challenging menopause stigma whenever it arises.

For helping the global workforce, menopause is a natural (and unavoidable) part of life. It also happens to overlap exactly with the period in which people are most likely to be qualified to advance into top leadership positions. Thus, to avoid overlooking high-potential leaders in this important demographic, men and women alike must work to acknowledge and eliminate harmful stigmas related to menopause and the natural aging experience. It’s up to those who have already made it to the top to build awareness, fight biases, and ensure that everyone feels supported — not silenced — as they progress through the phases of their careers and lives.

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