There’s a fear that highlighting menopause will undermine women, especially at work. But what have centuries of secrecy achieved for us?
Are you sick of hearing about menopause?
Kim Hill is. The living legend of Aotearoa broadcasting told actor Robyn Malcolm (also a legend) on her Saturday Morning show on RNZ that she feels “like menopause has gone from the condition that cannot speak its name to the condition that won’t shut up. It’s everywhere.”
She went on: “I have this proposition to make: that women are spending, have spent, will continue to spend, a lot of time and effort proving that they are up for it and as good as, if not better than; and we’re making special pleading because we feel so bad during menopause. I have trouble with that.
“I feel a bit queasy about saying ‘once a month we feel terrible. And when we get to 50-something, we feel even worse, because we’re women’ … We’re saying we’re dysfunctional a lot of the time as a consequence of our biology.”
A similar argument was recently expressed on a very different platform – The Daily Mail – by former British Vogue editor-in-chief, Alexandra Shulman, who criticised women for “playing the menopause card” in the workplace.
“Now I fear that with women kicking up a fuss about menopause, we are creating a new doubt in employers’ minds about another period of time in a woman’s working life that she might not be relied upon to turn up present and correct,” she wrote.
Aside from that very gendered term (do men ever get accused of “kicking up a fuss”?) these women are right: lots of us are making a fuss about menopause. And it’s about bloody time.
This idea that women going through menopause should just shut up, suck it up and get on with things, is something I have not had articulated to me by any man (at least to my face). If men really do think that, I’m not hearing it. Most men I talk to – if they’re not blushing with embarrassment – are actually curious and keen to be allies.
I have heard this idea, though, from women. Usually it’s older women; women who have been through menopause and are out the other side.
What’s going on here?
On reflection, I think perhaps it’s coming from one of two places. It’s possible these women did not have a difficult menopause themselves. Perhaps they’re among the lucky one in five women who sails on through; nothing to see here. In that case, they may genuinely wonder what all the “fuss” is about. Perhaps they think we Gen X women are just soft. (For the record: three out of five women will experience some troublesome symptoms at menopause, and the remaining one in five will have symptoms that seriously interfere with her quality of life).
The other source of this attitude could be that old-school, battle-weary feminist thinking, as hinted at by Hill. Often the women expressing this are high achievers, who’ve no doubt fought to get there. The suggestion seems to be that by talking about this thing we’re going through – even if we’re struggling – means letting the side down. We’re highlighting this difference; this “weakness” that can only mean we’re not up to the job; that we won’t get the promotion to the big office. We’re handing men an excuse to discriminate against us in the workplace; giving the patriarchy another reason to keep us down.
I get where this is coming from. But there’s some seriously messed-up internalised misogyny there, I think. I feel queasy about it.
People who menstruate are different – not inferior – to those who don’t. Once upon a time, it was believed a woman’s “wandering” uterus made her feeble-minded and untrustworthy. But who, now, is actually saying we are dysfunctional once a month? I think we have well and truly moved on from the days when female biology was seen as the reason we couldn’t do things like work or vote or have bank accounts.
It’s been 12 years since former Employers and Manufacturers Association chief Alasdair Thompson suffered a career-limiting backlash and was fired for his assertions that the gender pay gap was due to women having monthly “sick problems”, having babies and taking more sick leave than men. Now workplaces offer free period supplies and have documented menstruation policies in place.
Likewise, no one would suggest a woman who is pregnant is incapable of working at the highest level (like, say, running a country).
People who are pregnant are going through a natural, temporary stage in their lives; perhaps a stage where they might need some extra support. Menopause is the same. Except 100% of people with ovaries goes through it. When you’re pregnant, you come out of it with a beautiful baby. With menopause, you come out of it feeling, often, a new power, energy and mana; an appreciation of your own awesome resilience and a whole heap of self-knowledge. How is that a weakness?
I believe a key difference between these two life stages is that we haven’t talked enough about menopause. It’s been excluded from polite public (and often private) discourse for centuries, and that – far from making us equal to men – has contributed to huge inequities for women. It’s left us uninformed and uneducated about our own bodies, unsupported by the medical system and open to exploitation by unscrupulous marketers. It’s also left us unsupported at work. Not talking about it has, in fact, left us weaker.
Women will be stronger, and the attitude that we’re in any way “less than” will be banished to the vault with the wandering uterus theory, when everyone talks about menopause. When people of all genders and ages understand what it is (and, crucially, is not) and has some empathy towards those struggling with it. When it’s so utterly banal and normal, actually, that we don’t need to talk about it.
I hesitate to compare menopause to an illness. But we’ve come along way toward abolishing the stigma around mental health struggles and pushing that issue into the light. We’re in a much better place in society and at work, now that we’re more readily acknowledging and helping people experiencing those struggles. To get to that same place for menopause, I believe the answer lies in curiosity, learning and education. The more everyone understands that menopause is not an illness, or a disability, or a reason to avoid promoting women – but rather, simply, a transition where some women (not all, but some) may need support, the more we will feel able to shut up about it.
It’s not “kicking up a fuss” to acknowledge the existence of menopause in our lives. The more we talk about it, the less it can be weaponised into another way to hold women back.
Niki Bezzant is the author of This Changes Everything: the honest guide to menopause and perimenopause (Penguin, $37).