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How ignoring menopause in the workplace widens the equity gap

OP/ED: Women in their 40s and 50s are some of the most experienced managers. Overlooking their needs may come at a significant cost – to everyone.
A woman holds her head in her hands at a desk.
According to a recent Mayo Clinic study, menopause costs American women an estimated $1.8 billion in lost working time per year.VioletaStoimenova / Getty Images

I wasn’t thinking about menopause in my mid-30s until I was forced to.

After receiving an early menopause diagnosis, my doctors had little insight beyond recommending egg freezing (or not). Aside from processing how this impacted my fertility, I had to navigate what this hormone fluctuation would mean for me going forward. I had little guidance on handling this phase of life, and how it could impact my well-being and career. Having informed support from my physicians and workplace would have been enormous in helping me navigate my personal and professional life while facing early menopause.

Carrot Fertility CEO Tammy Sun.
Carrot Fertility CEO Tammy Sun.Courtesy of Carrot Fertility.

The U.S. workforce is aging fast, and that means there’s a historically high number — as much as 20 percent — of working women experiencing menopausal symptoms. According to a new Mayo Clinic study, menopause costs American women an estimated $1.8 billion in lost working time per year. And this doesn’t even include the costs associated with reduced work hours, employment loss, early retirement, or changing jobs. The cost to replace these skilled employees is also high — ranging from 50 percent to double the individual employee’s salary.

Many people experiencing menopause choose to continue working, but a significant number of these women are seeking new employment — leaving places where they are already in positions of leadership. In 2022, the rate of women in leadership positions changing jobs was historically high: for every woman director promoted to the next level, two women at the director level are leaving. Research finds that severe menopausal symptoms are contributing to this turnover. Companies are struggling to retain these knowledgeable leaders at a point when they have the most to give younger employees, and it contributes to both financial loss and difficulty in retaining talent under 30 who miss out on critical mentorship — widening the equity gap for generations.

Economic loss due to menopause

As women continue to make traction in management roles worldwide, employer-provided menopausal support is an urgent need for people experiencing those symptoms, their colleagues and team members, and employers hoping to retain talent and avoid financial loss due to high turnover or low productivity.

The North American Menopause Society estimates that 1.1 billion women will have experienced menopause by 2025. A 2019 study in the U.K. found that almost 900,000 women left their jobs because of menopausal symptoms. And a 2020 study with over 3,000 women reported that even women who reported just one disruptive menopausal symptom were 43 percent more likely to have left their jobs by the age of 55.

Research confirms what people — like me — experiencing the transition to menopause already know: performing at your best with severe symptoms is difficult and support is hard to find.

How menopause can affect a workday

Women in their 40s and 50s are some of the most experienced managers and valuable mentors in many workplaces. These high-performing, generous people need the stamina to produce results in their work and give their time to younger executives. But well-being plays a huge role in how much people can give at work. In one study, 46 percent of women ranked their 50s as the most difficult time in their careers.

Most people experience their last period (menopause) between ages 45 and 55, and the symptoms of menopausal transition can last anywhere from seven to 14 years. Hot flashes, lack of sleep, and mood swings can affect every kind of labor — from teaching to desk jobs to restaurant work. In some cases, even if people can push through their literal brain fog to perform, they may be less likely to ask for a promotion and more likely to eventually leave their jobs due to feelings of embarrassment, shame, or the assumption they are underperforming. When daily tasks are suddenly difficult, these leaders struggle to give the necessary time to mentor younger colleagues.

The risk of losing workplace equity for generations

The lack of senior female leadership in the workplace is well-documented: as of February 2023, women held 8.2 percent of the CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, and women of color in senior roles are even rarer. What is also well documented is that younger employees value DEI efforts and pay attention to the treatment of female leaders in their workplaces. According to a recent poll, one in two women report that a company’s practices in diversity and inclusion are “very important” when they’re weighing a job offer. Lack of support for senior leadership is indicative of a company’s values. Mentorship by women to younger colleagues is critical in building confidence and giving advancement opportunities to a more diverse set of talent, particularly in male-dominated industries.

Despite the low number of women in leadership positions, female leaders contribute more to employee engagement — including DEI and mentorship — than their male counterparts, and research shows that disengaged employees cost their employers $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary.

Expanding menopause care creates equitable workplaces

Companies need to invest in age-inclusive healthcare to support lifelong needs. This investment can build loyalty in both the employees experiencing menopause and their younger team members. When senior leadership has flexibility and support through menopause, they have the agency to create a culture of transparency and understanding when their team members are dealing with hot flashes, brain fog, and other menopausal symptoms.

Through age-inclusive benefits, people gain access to clinicians who are trained in treating menopausal symptoms (which not all are) with therapies such as menopausal hormone therapy as a first step. Employers who want to de-stigmatize menopause in the workplace can offer flexible work hours and the ability to work from home. I know that support from employers and education from clinicians trained to support lifelong reproductive health can be life-changing for female leaders today and for the next generation of diverse leaders.