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Silence Around Menopause Is Costing Women Their Careers. Let’s Break It

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

In our youth-obsessed culture, I’m grateful that my chosen field—coaching—values experience and, dare I say, wisdom. Honestly, what executive wants a coach who is still wet behind the ears, who hasn’t been around the block a time or two? So as a woman in my 50’s having done this work for fifteen years, I can confidently say that I am “in my prime,” whatever former CNN host Don Lemon would say.

Which is why I am so delighted that we are finally talking about menopause. Formerly unmentionable or played for a joke, menopause occurs in half the population at a time when they have the experience and skills to take on leadership roles. But the transition phase, perimenopause, creates a hormonal ruckus in the female body that ushers in a range of symptoms from the merely inconvenient—such as irregular periods or occasional hot flashes—to life-disrupting physiological, mental and psychological challenges including sleep problems, painful sex, mood disorders, and memory problems or “brain fog.” And the symptoms can last two to ten years! For some women, the experience of perimenopause is confidence-shattering. They experience overwhelm and find themselves suddenly unable to handle stress that they used to cope with in stride. This disorienting time even leads some women to leave their jobs prematurely—just at a time when many are emerging from their child rearing years and can focus on their careers.

The good news is that there are powerful treatments, including hormone therapy, available to ease symptoms. Personally, I have found significant relief that has improved the quality of my life. Yet over 70% of women don’t treat their symptoms. Why? Lack of awareness among women and their physicians, misinformation about the risks of hormone therapy, and continuing stigma around midlife makes it harder than it should be for women to get the treatment that can make all the difference. So we have to talk about it and keep talking about it.

  • Talk to your doctor. Start with your own OB/GYN. Describe your symptoms as well as the impact that they are having on your life and well-being. Many physicians lack training in menopause and don’t take the symptoms seriously, telling their patients, as my first doctor did, that it’s “normal” and it will pass. And while there are some risks associated with hormone therapy, they are modest, and the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) guidelines indicate that the benefits of hormone therapy outweigh the risks for most women under 60 who have “bothersome” hot flashes and no contraindications. So don’t give up. And if you can’t find a provider nearby (I recommend the NAMS provider directory), you can seek an online provider, such as Midi Health and Evernow. Of course, each person is unique and needs to weigh the health risks in consultation with a medical professional.
  • Talk to your friends and family. Women need to break the conspiracy of silence about menopause that treats it as unspeakable or unseemly. We must talk to one another about our experiences, share stories and advice, and support one another, just as many women share resources during pregnancy and parenting. My pal Jill Herzig recently offered some fabulous advice that should be required reading—circulated widely among women in their 30s and 40s—just like we passed around “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” years before we got our periods.
  • Talk about it at work. We also need to talk about menopause at work. Yes, there is a stigma associated with menopause, but it can be overcome by acknowledging it openly. In a study that compared reactions to the same story involving a “menopausal woman,” a “middle-aged woman” or a “middle aged man,” subjects judged the menopausal woman to be less stable than the other categories, unless she acknowledged her symptoms and their cause. Researchers concluded that “disclosing your own menopausal status conveys confidence and stability, essentially canceling out the negative biases that people would otherwise hold.” The message: own it!

With the challenges that the world is facing, businesses and organizations need experienced, wise women leaders now more than ever. Less than 25% of C-Suite executives are women, and many of them are in their fifties. If we hope to increase their representation, we need to address their healthcare needs. Honest conversations that help women access treatment, share information and support, and de-stigmatize this natural experience—that, let’s face it, is coming for all of us—will allow women to navigate this transition without skipping a beat.