By Womaness Editors 5-Minute Read
British psychologist Lee Chambers has found himself leading a conversation not many men in their late thirties can claim: one of menopause support and gender equity in the workplace. As founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, one of the UK’s leading workplace wellbeing specialists, he’s heard story after story from women in senior-level leadership roles—many of whom are approaching or are in menopause—that astonish him.
“Some stories are absolutely shocking,” says Chambers. “The complete lack of support…the complete lack of compassion or consideration...”
There’s the story from a woman whose confidence plummeted after having to rely on her team to keep her on track in meetings by slipping her notes. The brilliant industry leader who feared her brain fog was early onset dementia. The perimenopausal senior director with now-heavy periods in a long meeting without a break—and the male colleague who questioned her aloud when she tried to tiptoe out to change. Even the menopausal woman whose symptoms so affected her sleep that she crashed her car while driving between client meetings.
"It simply doesn’t make sense...or good business. 'These women are highly competent, highly capable, and highly skilled...'"
“I said to myself, 'I have to do something,’" he explains. “The conversation has to be normalized…. plus it sits alongside the intersection of ageism for women, where you’re entering menopause while facing that challenges of society's invisibility—often while caring for parents and still caring for children—and usually at the most advanced position in their career.”
Chambers says it simply doesn’t make sense...or good business. “These women are highly competent, highly capable, and highly skilled because of the number of obstacles they've had to climb over,” he explains. “And workplaces are stupid enough to lose them by not offering a bit of support.”
He’s now on a mission to ensure companies offer that support and bring education into the workplace. “Companies want gender parity at board level. They want that diverse talent and diverse thinking. They want all the good stuff. But they've got to do the work.”
Here are five recommendations he gives to his clients who aim to create change.
1. REMOVE ASSUMPTIONS, EMBRACE COMPASSION
The first thing is to work on removing some of the assumptions and the judgements, because it often helps to start from a blank canvas rather than what you've heard or think.
You might start by thinking, "Well, should I say to my colleague, "Do you think you might be going through menopause?" We say no, because that’s making an assumption. Plus, women's voices have been silenced and muted for a long time. There are some women who really want to hold that space and have that voice now because those voices need to be amplified. Other women, however, don't want to disclose it or only want to disclose it to certain people. It's still a challenge for them.
Instead, come from a place of curiosity. The question actually needs to be, "How can we support you? Is there any support you need at the moment?"
Because in the workplace, you spend a lot of time with the team you're in close proximity to. You may notice those subtle changes in behavior maybe even before the individual themselves does, and that little bit of curiosity and compassion can make a difference.
2. CREATE SAFE SPACES THAT VALIDATE WOMEN
Conditions need to be created where women are listened to and their experience is validated—but also where they don't have to discuss it and be forced to share those experiences, as it can be re-traumatizing for women.
Women will come from a variety of different angles when it comes to sharing. Some will not want to disclose. Some will want to disclose to someone they trust. Others will want to fully disclose.
As a business, you might want to consider having a trusted person who can be disclosed to when people don't feel they can talk to their own line manager (which does happen, as management capability is a whole other challenge when it comes to having these conversations).
I've heard people say, "I told my manager and they stonewalled me, saying, ‘It's too much. I can't handle it. I don’t want to talk about this.’" But then other managers have said, "You should have said something!" You can get both sides.
Moreover, safe spaces need to be created for people to talk not just about menopause, but also other areas of lesser privilege. Those conversations can then come together to see where things intersect. For example, Black women have more challenges with accessing healthcare and more challenges with their menopausal symptoms. So look at those intersections and create opportunities for different groups of lesser privilege to discuss how things impact them.
"You might want to consider having a trusted person who can be disclosed to when people don't feel they can talk to their own line manager."
3. NORMALIZE THE CONVERSATION THROUGH EDUCATION
There needs to be an active effort to normalize the conversation across the organization. This wider education is really important. You don't need just one person in the business who is an amazing menopause expert and knows everything; you need a whole base level of education for everybody, especially leadership and management. And planting that seed then gives space for more self-education for the individuals who want to build upon it so they can be more supportive.
4. CONSIDER CHANGES SPECIFIC TO YOUR COMPANY
For some industries, it might be adapting uniforms. For some, it might be looking at more flexible working arrangements so if someone is struggling with symptoms, she can be more flexible in how she works.
It can even come down to streamlining systems. For example, what's the process for ordering a desk fan should she need one? Does she have to go through 10 forms and tell the world why, or can it be tweaked so she doesn’t have to jump through a million hoops and justify why over and over again? If things can be easier and a bit more seamless, then it makes a massive difference.
5. GET MEN INVOLVED
Something we've found is that if training is optional, uptake and engagement by men can be really low. Some companies do make training mandatory, and there's definitely benefit in having everyone attend. But sometimes it can also create a bit of backlash and defensiveness that “we're being forced to go to this.”
The really powerful thing we've noticed is that it only takes one man within an organization. It's especially powerful if he's relatively senior and shares a personal case study of how he's supported his partner through menopause and how it's impacted them both. We've found that if you get one man within an organization speak about it, it opens up the door for another 10 men to start to explore it, and all of a sudden they're much more likely to engage in initiatives.
Gender equity initiatives are six times more effective when men are involved. The sad reality is a small sub-sector of men still hold a lot of power in terms of decision-making, direction, influence, culture, and resources—and having them engaged and feeling that this is something they can be part of is powerful. Because menopause indirectly impacts everyone, there's a reason for everyone to be involved in the movement.
"Because menopause indirectly impacts everyone, there's a reason for everyone to be involved in the movement."
Learn more about Lee Chambers' advocacy for menopause education and support in the workplace and work in the gender equity field at leechambers.org.