Why smashing the taboo around menopause makes good economic sense

There is a good business case to be made for smashing the taboo that surrounds talking about menopause, experts say. 

Not only has it been estimated that global productivity losses tied to difficulties coping with menopause symptoms at work could amount to $150 billion US per year, they say, but women 45 to 60 represent a lot of buying power for companies savvy enough to market products and services to them. 

In Canada, 45 per cent of the female population is made up of women 45 years and older, according to the latest census data.

Given increased female labour force participation, the women going through menopausal changes now are more likely than generations before to hold senior roles at work, making them difficult to replace, says demographer Jenny Godley.

They’re also more likely to have good salaries and disposable income to spend on things that help them manage through menopause, said Godley, with the University of Calgary’s sociology and community health sciences departments.

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The marketing opportunity could be substantial, she said, if companies take into consideration both the people who are going through menopausal changes and those in the years to follow.

“That’s potentially a huge or a very large demographic, because we’re living so long,” said Godley. 

This cohort is also becoming more open about their health, she said, including mental health.

“I think we’re just much more aware now of a lot of different women’s health issues and there’s less stigma,” said Godley. “And some of what is associated with menopause is quite often mental, in terms of depression or memory loss or mood swings.”

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) defines menopause as the point in time when a woman has had no menstrual period for 12 consecutive months. Though people commonly refer to the time leading up to this milestone as “going through menopause,” in fact, this phase is actually called perimenopause.

Though everyone’s experience is unique, perimenopause can bring a wide range of physical and emotional changes linked to hormone fluctuations, usually occurring between ages 45 and 55. The SOGC says symptoms last an average of seven years, but some women can experience these into their 60s.

Deborah Garlick, right, is the founder of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace. She is seen here on the set of a television production for World Menopause Day on Oct. 18, 2021, speaking to journalist Louise Minchin. (Submitted by Deborah Garlick)

While the best known among them are likely hot flashes, fatigue, anxiety and difficulty concentrating are also among the issues that may impact a woman’s life at home and work, said Deborah Garlick, director of Henpicked: Menopause in the Workplace, a consultancy based in Nottinghamshire, U.K., that helps employers develop menopause policies.

Because it can be difficult to untangle menopausal and perimenopausal symptoms — digestive problems, headaches and others — from any number of other things that could be going on, women often say they’re surprised to discover that these changes are already upon them — even without the more obvious hot flashes and irregular periods, said Garlick. 

Menopause policies at work

In the U.K., where lawmakers have convened an all-party parliamentary committee to explore the impact of menopause, conversation about the once-taboo topic is exploding.

That conversation has been helped along by prominent British female executives speaking up about the experience, including Liv Garfield, CEO of water utility Severn Trent, and Rachel Lord, a senior executive at investment firm BlackRock.

Even Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, has spoken publicly about how menopause can no longer be kept separate from life in the workplace.

“As soon as senior leaders start talking about it, it gives permission for everybody to be more open about it,” said Garlick.

Simple adjustments in the workplace can help counter productivity loss related to menopause, said Garlick, who consults with companies on creating menopause policies. (Shutterstock/fizkes)

An aging population and tight labour market mean employers can’t afford to lose women during the potentially bumpy years leading to menopause, said Garlick. 

“That’s a very costly experience for employers,” she said, noting that replacing a worker can set a company back around $50,000.

What’s more, said Garlick, menopause is covered by the U.K.’s Equality Act, meaning that employees can bring cases of discrimination related to menopause to workplace tribunals.

Her company conducts about 100 training sessions each month to help managers and other employees be informed about how to support staff who may be experiencing symptoms related to menopause.

‘Tiny adjustments’ go a long way

Workplace adjustments can include simple things, like making sure there are desk fans, breathable uniforms and plenty of cold drinking water available to help deal with hot flashes, as well as having more one-on-one sessions between managers and staff about how things are going, said Garlick.

She recalled the case of one women who was struggling with concentration while going through menopausal changes. Her boss would ask her to do things when they bumped into one another in the hallway. 

“And she just sat down with him and said, ‘Look, this is what’s going on for me. It would be really helpful if I can be at my desk when you’re giving me actions to do.’ And he was so supportive,” Garlick said.

“Actually, the workplace adjustments are usually tiny.”

Consumer product marketing

Outside of the workplace, products geared to women of menopausal age have been conspicuously absent from store shelves, says Sally Mueller.

That’s what prompted her and a friend to found Womaness, a skincare and wellness product company geared to women who are going through menopausal changes.

“Women over … 45, so my age group, we are the wealthiest, healthiest, most active generation to date,” said Mueller, who has a background developing brands for retailers like Target and fashion company Who What Wear.

“So we spend a lot of money, we have huge buying power, but only about five per cent of advertising dollars are spent appealing to us.”

Sarah Kaplan, a distinguished professor of gender and the economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, says there’s a sound business opportunity in marketing products to women going through menopause. But she argues it could also be problematic if the products are too focused on the ‘cosmetic effects of aging,’ instead of addressing the actual symptoms of menopause. (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto)

There’s a sound business opportunity in marketing products to women going through menopause, especially since this group has been “traditionally ignored,” said Sarah Kaplan, a distinguished professor of gender and the economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.

However, she cautioned that an increasing number of products “might fall into the kind of Goop-Gwyneth Paltrow-type of category,” in that they are expensive and sound cool, “but maybe don’t actually do anything.”

Given the stigma around menopause and aging in general, she said, some products may take advantage of the fact that people who are quietly suffering may be “looking for some kinds of magical solutions.”

“There’s a big issue in our society of ageism, and especially ageism against women,” said Kaplan, noting that’s borne out by research showing women are devalued — both in the marketplace and the workplace — as they get older.

“And so there is an increased temptation to want to try to use products that will mitigate against some of the cosmetic effects of aging,” she said. “There’s a risk that these products could be taking advantage of insecurities that are created by social norms, as opposed to actually helping people deal with specific medical concerns, like dry skin.”     


Produced by Jennifer Keene.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/costofliving/smashing-menopause-taboos-at-work-1.6281111

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