My earliest memory of Viola Davis is from the award-winning 2011 film The Help, which chronicles a group of Mississippi women against the backdrop of racism. Last year, Davis enlightened popular American TV host Jimmy Kimmel, and possibly a majority of America too, about something that happens to half the world’s population but is hardly ever spoken about — menopause. It was a short but telling conversation and one that caught global attention.
Sadly, this happened to be one of those rare occasions when a specific women-only issue was in the mainstream limelight. According to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), about 4 per cent of Indian women between the ages of 29 and 34 experience signs of menopause. The figure goes up to 8 per cent for women between the ages of 35 and 39. In the US, menopause affects 27 million women at work daily. To put it in perspective, that’s 20 per cent of the American workforce. In the UK, “menopausal women are the fastest growing workforce demographic” as stated by the Office of National Statistics.
According to Wellbeing of Women Survey, 2016, one in four women in the UK considered leaving their jobs due to menopausal symptoms. Not surprising, given the extreme physical and psychological shifts women experience during this phase. A report by the Harvard Medical School states that up to 50 per cent perimenopausal women experience hot flashes and 40 per cent have sleep problems. According to another study by The New York Times, 60 per cent of women are likely to experience menopause-related cognitive impairment. Another survey by a US non-profit found thay in 84 per cent of women these physical and psychological changes disrupted their daily lives, especially their work — in fact,12 per cent termed these changes as “debilitating”.
The lack of a mainstream dialogue on menopause compounds the problem — it results in women not even recognising the symptoms and thus suffering in silence. So silent is the world on menopause, that women feel constrained in even discussing their problems, especially at work. Forty-five per cent of the women surveyed by the British Menopause Society admitted to feeling their menopause symptoms affecting their work negatively, and 47 per cent of those who needed time off were supremely uncomfortable telling their employers or colleagues the reasons for the said absenteeism from work. In a study conducted by the British Occupational Health Research Foundation, 20 per cent of the women surveyed believed their managers and colleagues doubted their competence because of menopause. In such an unfortunate scenario, most women take the easier way out — they quit.
Explained: A history of attitudes to menopause
Which brings us to the million-dollar question — why is there such a severe lack of conversation on something that affects half the global population at some point in their lives? Well, it boils down to the lethal concoction of sexism and ageism. The world, designed by men, for men, is by default programmed to make less of women’s issues, especially that of ageing women. Men supposedly age like fine wine while we women are considered crinkly crones by 40 and positively irrelevant in our 50s. Added to that, of course, is the fact that ours will be the first generation of women where a significant number of us will be working when in our 40s and 50s
Most workplaces are ill-equipped to deal with the grand menopause conundrum because they will be seeing its effects for the first time in India’s corporate corridors. Needless to say, we can’t hit the pause button on this anymore. In fact, menopause is slowly but surely being recognised as an emerging health crisis in India, and we will soon have a silent epidemic affecting a reasonably large chunk of our workforce.
So, if you are a woman reader, the most important piece of advice I have for you is to practise awareness and mind management. We have to recognise what is happening and link it to how we are feeling. Knowledge is empowering and critical in helping us make informed, reasoned choices instead of impulsive ones. Realisation precedes corrective action. So read upon it , talk to your GP and understand what is happening to your body. And once you know, you can ensure you do whatever is possible to alleviate the trauma. Meditate, exercise, use the power of the sisterhood, commiserate openly with your girlfriends and share your problems with your family.
Also read | How does your skin change during menopause?
From an organisational standpoint, we need proactive measures to support menopausal women because the physiological and psychological cocktail menopause subjects women to can be unpleasant at best and wrecking at worst. Educating the management and providing flexible work hours is a great place to start. Many firms have days and sessions dedicated to “wellness”. Can some of them be structured around menopause? Taking this a step further would be to factor in health conditions arising out of menopause in benefit programmes handed to female employees.
The dialogue on menopause will only become mainstream when women realise their role in subverting age-old systems. According to studies, high-performing and already successful women often see their prospects improve under a female leadership. So much so that multiple senior women saw a marked improvement in their earnings when they worked for a female boss. According to another study, companies with higher number of female board members were likely to hire more women than companies with predominantly male ones. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy — a wonderfully positive cycle of affairs which creates a domino effect, one that ensures more women are at the workplace, a workplace where menopause isn’t a taboo and definitely not a silent epidemic.
Viola Davis called menopause “hell” and rightfully so. But now it’s time we showed hell what we are made of.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 13, 2020 under the title ‘Let’s talk about menopause’. The writer is president, Jagran Prakashan and author of recently released Lady, You’re the Boss.
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