For many women, menopause is an inevitability. But so, it seems, is being ignored, made to feel shame, misdiagnosed, given the wrong medication and restricted from access to help.
Some 80 percent of women experience changes during menopause.
Hot flushes, headaches, insomnia, poor concentration, loss of memory, urinary problems, hair loss, heavy bleeding, vaginal discomfort, depression, anxiety and mood swings are just some of the symptoms.
In the workplace, around 4.3 million women are menopausal. Nine in ten women feel the menopause has a negative impact on their working life.
Women are embarrassed and bullied, with nearly 900,000 women having been pushed out of their workplaces.
Trade unions are now fighting for more awareness and recognition. The TUC union federation released a toolkit aimed at union officers and reps to better support members affected by menopause.
GMB, Unison and the NEU are some of the trade unions battling for women’s health equality. Information guides are produced for workers and training is encouraged for reps.
Allison is a public sector worker and PCS union activist. She was once approached by a union member going through menopause who was struggling with memory and focusing on detailed work.
“She had a manager making life very difficult, she was being micromanaged,” Allison told Socialist Worker. “We said she was being bullied, it’s completely inappropriate. One of us became her rep and we tackled it like that.”
Allison explained that the line manager in question was female.
“Some women managers have to prove they’re as good as male managers by being as unreasonable and sexist as any man. It’s the unpleasant aspect of management,” she explained.
But at Allison’s workplace last week union pressure won proper guidance for line managers. “We also had a workplace menopause meeting, and have another next week,” she said.
Often workers are told to mould themselves to fit the needs of their workplace. Fighting for more menopause recognition ensures workers are accommodated, rather than being forced to accommodate to the bosses.
Sally Kincaid is the joint district secretary of the NEU in Wakefield. She told Socialist Worker that three years ago women in their late 40s and early 50s were being bullied at school by management.
One woman in particular met with the union and management to fight for a support plan to be put in place.
“Things are definitely starting to change,” Sally explained. “After that meeting posters were being put up.
“If women were honest about not sleeping at night, there wasn’t always the right response. Now menopause is beginning to be an acceptable reason to have time off.”
Sally thinks that the lack of awareness comes from the system. “Under capitalism older women are put on the shelf,” she said.
“Menopause is temporary, but sexism and ageism definitely play a role. Women are seen as no longer useful in terms of producing the next generation of workers.”
Allison said that menopause is still not properly treated by the NHS. “Why isn’t there more funding and recognition?” she asked.
“It’s a symptom of women’s oppression. Women lose jobs for being women, because they have children or go through menopause and months of symptoms.”
Menopause has always been a class and union issue
Allison thinks unions are now taking up issues around menopause because of the #MeToo movement.
“The anger at the level of sexism, harassment, misogyny and structural oppression women face has angered women—and men,” she explained.
“When a movement really ploughs up society, like Black Lives Matter and the vigils for Sarah Everard, it feeds into anger around what’s happened to other women.
“It makes things easier to discuss, and people feel angrier and more confident.”
“Problems such as sexism, austerity and Covid are thrown back onto the family—particularly onto women and working class families,” Allison added.
“I think that’s why men are angry too—it’s not just men versus women. Male colleagues can be our allies around menopause.
“There has to be a higher level of anger and determination to say we’re not going to put up with this. We’re not going to be bullied because we’re female.”
Sally added that experiences such as menopause “always hit the poorest hardest”.
“Rich women going through menopause can afford to go to a foreign country to relax, or go shopping—the poor have to fight their way through."
Sally explained how experiences affect working women differently, showing that women across society aren’t all in it together.
“Working women stay up with their baby all night and then go to work the next day,” she explained. “Things women go through are continually individualised.
“If you’re going through menopause and haven’t slept, a fellow worker and trade unionist should be asking ‘what can we do?’ It’s a trade union issue.”
Allison agrees. She said taking on equality “makes us all better trade unionists and colleagues.”
“The chances that menopause is not touching your life is very remote. It’s definitely a class issue—we have to tackle these things collectively.”
Openness and action are needed now
Sally says there needs to be more “understanding, discussion and open dialogue” about menopause. “This discussion has to include lots of people,” she said.
“When you win things like fans at work or whatever helps, it makes others feel like they can win things.”
Allison said, “We need to actually be making sure unions have national policy, training for reps and information, such as fact sheets to give people the confidence to raise issues.
“It should be part of our normal union work. It’d be great if people put on events with information sheets to read and links that people can access.”
Sally added that conversation about the menopause has to be “wider” to prevent further problems, such as drugs being pushed on women when this isn’t the appropriate solution.
“Much of what women go through during menopause is internalised—if you Google the symptoms, you’re told it’s either long Covid or the menopause,” she said.
“Being given a hormone patch isn’t enough. Why has there not been more research? This could have a positive effect and ask what more can be done to help, rather than drug companies making profits.”
The demands that workers can make in regard to menopause can be part of a wider struggle for better workplace conditions for women.