For half of the world’s 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 eligible to advance to top leadership positions – and the authors’ new research shows that people who experience menopause often which is judged to be less like the leader, thus creating another obstacle. which keeps women back in the workplace. However, the authors also found that if women talk openly about going through menopause, this prejudice can be reduced, helping them to be seen as having high leadership potential even what is the state of menopause. As such, the authors suggest that managers should normalize the open discussion of menopause (because many women are afraid to discuss such a stigmatized topic at work), create psychologically safe workplace that empowers everyone to share and ask for support without fear of retaliation or discrimination. , and proactively ensuring that all employees feel supported – not silenced – as they progress through the stages of their careers and lives.
In the United States, the average CEO is hired by age 54. For many of us, middle age promises to be the pinnacle of our careers, where decades of hard work finally pay off and we are seen to have the skills, self-confidence, and resilience needed to move to the next level. to manage and lead. papers. But for half the population, middle age also means another major transition: menopause.
The menopausal transition – that is, the time when reproductive hormone levels can change and menstrual cycles eventually stop – usually begins between the ages of 45 and 55, and lasts about seven years. During this time, women (or anyone with a female anatomy) experience a variety of symptoms, including subtle changes such as depression, sleep issues, and changes in mood, as well as the more visible symptoms of hot flashes: unpredictable moments of overheating. , flushing, and sweating. And while the invisible symptoms are less important, many people are more embarrassed to experience hot flashes at work because of the concern that being openly “outed” as menopausal could hurt their careers. But is this fear necessary?
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) that explores stereotypes associated with menopause, the potential costs to women’s careers, and strategies to help those men and women alike can overcome these prejudices.
Women Experiencing Menopause Are Less Like Leaders…
In our first study, we asked 300 full-time US-based workers to share their first impressions of a hypothetical co-worker 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 situation that 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, participants reported that menopausal women seemed less confident and less emotionally stable (two traits we’ve shown to be associated with leadership) than non-menopausal women — even more situations which are equal.
…Unless They Talk About Menopause Openly
The good news is, our next several studies have identified an effective strategy to overcome this bias. We asked over 240 full-time workers to imagine that they were attending a meeting where a female, middle-aged colleague was observed to have hot flashes: She was uncomfortable, blushing, fanning the himself, and wiped the sweat from his face. In one scenario, when a co-worker asked how she was doing, she said, “I’m fine, just hot,” while in another scenario, she replied, “I’m fine, just that menopausal thing.” time of life.” When the woman openly disclosed that her symptoms were due to menopause, she was seen as more confident, strong, and leader-like than when she claimed to be “just hot.”
We also determined that this effect occurs regardless of the race of the woman, or the gender makeup of the group: We tested scenarios where the woman was clearly described as Black or white, as well as situations where the encounter equally divided between. male and female or male-dominated, and participants often think that menopausal women are more leader-like if they openly disclosed that they have a hot flash.
It seems counterintuitive. After all, our first study showed that there are clear negative stereotypes associated with the menopausal. But our analysis suggests that the act of disclosing your own menopausal status conveys confidence and resilience, actually canceling out negative biases that people may hold.
It’s also important to note that it’s not just that people appreciate getting an explanation for what happened: In another scenario, participants were told to imagine that a company explained that the woman’s symptoms were due to menopause, rather than the woman herself explaining the symptoms. These participants knew that the woman’s symptoms were menopausal, but they still rated her as less of a leader. This suggests that simply educating people about what hot flashes look like is not enough to overcome prejudices – to maximize perceptions of leadership potential, self-disclosure is essential.
Normalizing Menopause at Work
Of course, while the benefits of openly talking about menopause (and so on workplace taboos) obviously, many people are understandably uncomfortable doing so. A recent survey of women in the UK found that almost half were uncomfortable disclosing their menopausal status at work, and in our own survey of nearly 100 women, around a third said they would not discuss it about menopause at work, one third will only share with specific people, and only one third will reveal openly. While some women feel it is important to connect with their colleagues truthfully about this “natural part of aging,” those who are less comfortable discussing menopause in the workplace express fear of discrimination and embarrassment.
As such, to overcome prejudice against people experiencing menopause, it is important to build workplace cultures that encourage talking about it openly. Our research shows that especially among women who are actively trying to be leaders, recognizing hot flashes when they occur and simply stating – without shame or embarrassment – that it is due to menopause is a effective way to demonstrate self-confidence and leadership potential. Additionally, every time someone openly talks about menopause, they normalize the experience and make it easier for others to follow suit.
At the same time, it is also important to recognize that it is not only the responsibility of people experiencing menopause to address these issues. Managers should strive to create psychologically safe workplaces where everyone feels safe to raise issues and ask for support without fear of retaliation or discrimination. To develop this kind of workplace, leaders can start by being open about their own lives (about menopause or other conditions) and clearly showing a willingness to listen and learn from experiences. others. 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 above all, actively challenging menopause stigma when it arises.
For half of the global workforce, menopause is a natural (and inevitable) part of life. It also happens to coincide with the exact time when people are most likely to be qualified to advance to high leadership positions. Thus, to avoid overlooking the high potential leaders of this important demographic, men and women must work to identify and eliminate the harmful stigmas associated with menopause and the natural aging experience. It’s up to those who have reached the top to raise awareness, combat biases, and ensure that everyone feels supported — not silenced — as they progress through the stages of their careers and lives.