Morning commuters cross a street in Hong Kong’s Central district on August 18. Many women reach the height of their career and leadership capability at the same time that they enter perimenopause and menopause. Photo: Bloomberg
Laura McHale
Laura McHale

Talking about menopause at work might be a game changer for women’s leadership

  • Organisations need to lift the taboo and better support menopausal women at work
  • Menopause can also allow women leaders to explore how to bring their whole self to work, vulnerabilities and all, demonstrating true leadership

In my work as a leadership psychologist, I have spent years studying and talking to organisations about women’s leadership. But absent from the reams of literature – as well as our workplace discussions – is any mention of the word “menopause”.

This is ironic because many women reach the height of their career and leadership capability at the same time that they enter perimenopause and menopause, often with a significant impact on their physical, cognitive and emotional well-being.

We call this the “menopause taboo” and it’s striking just how taboo it really is. It speaks to a general unease we have in organisations around the physicality of bodies, especially women’s, but also to the many ways we underplay the powerful role of emotions in how we show up at work each day.

Organisations have made great strides in accommodating and supporting women before and after childbirth. But not all professional women are having children: Gen X, who is entering menopause, and subsequent generations have seen more high-status female professionals than ever before, with some of the lowest completed fertility rates in modern history.

This means that the maternity conversation, while still important, is applicable to fewer women every year. But menopause is something that every woman will face at some point in her life and career, provided she lives long enough.

Many working women experience shame and stigma for manifesting menopausal symptoms. Photo: Shutterstock

And menopause brings with it significant changes in terms of how women show up. Studies show at least half of women in perimenopause and menopause report difficulty coping with their work, and about 5 per cent of women will be severely compromised by their symptoms.

These include hot flushes, night sweats, disrupted sleep patterns and difficulties with emotional regulation and mood. For some women, they can lead to severe depressive and anxiety disorders. Added to this is the shame and social stigma that many women feel for even manifesting symptoms in the first place.

The good news is that the symptoms of menopause are usually temporary, even if they last a few years. And there is a lot that organisations can do to support women going through “the change”.

Numerous studies have found that cognitive behavioural therapy is effective for reducing hot flushes and night sweats, and women’s networks at work can leverage this research by creating support systems, or tribes, for women to talk about and share their experiences.
There is a lot that organisations can do to support women going through “the change”. Photo: Shutterstock

Organisations can also help women frame their menopause as a blessing rather than a curse. Menopause is an opening for women to explore their emotional worlds, and particularly unresolved issues around loss and grieving. Many societies are grief-phobic and grief-illiterate but we can help transform this dynamic by creating more compassionate workplaces.

Organisations can further support women through executive coaching – and we need to work on training programmes for human resource leaders and coaches to develop better skills for coaching female leaders during menopause. And organisations can spread awareness among male allies around the unique challenges menopausal women face and how allies can offer greater support.

Acknowledging and honouring menopause at work might just be a game changer for women’s leadership. Menopause helps women explore how they can bring the whole self to work, vulnerability and all. And this can act as a role model to the rest of our organisations what true leadership really looks like.

Dr Laura McHale is a leadership psychologist and the managing director of Conduit Consultants, an organisational consultancy based in Hong Kong. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Neuroscience for Organisational Communication: A Guide for Communicators and Leaders”