As a country we have made huge strides in ensuring women are able to play a more equal part in our economy. We have achieved almost universal primary and secondary education for girls and boys. Thankfully it is now normal to talk about mental health, to report the gender pay gap, to tackle violence against women and girls, to fight for equality, and to speak out against homophobia and all forms of hatred.
So why is it when it comes to post-reproductive health, women seem to be being ignored? In all of this, menopause seems the silent ghost. It’s nearly three decades since Gail Sheehy published The Silent Passage, the landmark work on menopause.
The menopause, as the @hotflush Instagram account puts it, is the “club no-one wants to join”. Because no-one wants to join it, no-one from the outside has a clue what is going on inside! But once you step over the threshold it’s clear that there’s a fabulously supportive network of people and a ton of useful information. It is also clear that there are some major things not happening that should be.
It’s time that this natural stage of life, that can mark the flowering of a productive and happy third age, is better understood by policy makers. And this has only became obvious when I hit my fifties and menopause started happening to me.
My migraines, always a blight on my life, intensified. I assumed they were a result of stress, lack of sleep or something more sinister. I’d just become a Member of Parliament and was going through all challenges and upheaval that this entails – hiring staff, setting up a new office, moving house and effectively adjusting to a completely new way of life. That this could be down to the menopause hadn’t occurred to me at all! I wasn’t suffering the classic symptoms of hot flushes, mood swings and night sweats, so it couldn’t be the menopause, surely? It took me a long time to find out that these migraines could be cause by a change in hormones, therefore indicating the menopause, I realised that there is a huge need for an awareness-raising campaign.
I started to reach out to women who are already active champions and professional experts in this space and began to uncover some true horror stories. Successful women, at the peak of their careers, having to leave their jobs because they were suffering from treatable symptoms of menopause. Severe depression and anxiety at one end of the scale to the more well-known hot flushes, memory loss and tiredness that impairs normal functioning. These symptoms were affecting their whole lives and their relationships with partners and families. And they are not getting any empathy or support from their workplaces or society on this issue.
We are in a time where we need and often want to work well beyond our fifties and sixties. And businesses need a talented and diverse work force to face future challenges. Women of menopausal age are perfectly positioned to contribute positively in all walks of life and all aspects of the public sphere. But they are sometimes being held back by adverse menopausal symptoms, and through lack of education, understanding and basic treatment that could help.
So, I am on a mission to bring this issue higher up the agenda of Government. I said in Parliament when I launched the campaign, the menopause is a natural stage of life that affects every woman and every man who lives with or works with a woman. It could be argued that menopause affects every area of Government policy making - because government policy affects every woman! I’m sympathetic to that statement! To kick things off, I’m focusing my efforts on three defined areas. These are things that I believe are, or could be in time, achievable within Government. If we can make progress here, it will be transformative.
I’ve learned that modern forms of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be incredibly helpful. What’s more, guidelines already exist to guide GPs and health professionals to prescribe the right treatment and care. But so often these aren’t being implemented. And outdated myths about HRT are still widespread (before I started this campaign I still had this lingering memory that HRT was bad because it was made from horse pee). I would like to push for best practice and understanding to be widespread. If you go to your GP as a menopausal woman, you shouldn’t be relying on pot luck if you get one that understands menopause or not.
This is where there are some huge wins. I’ve already seen some brilliant work in workplaces that are actively signing up to be menopause -friendly. Shout-out to West Midlands Police and the fantastic work they are doing! As an MP, I can push for my local public sector employers in my patch to adopt similar policies and training. And more widely, we can get this message out there, that just like having policies on mental health, caring, and shared parental leave, having policies on menopause can benefit your business bottom line because it keeps your employees happy and productive, when you’ve invested significant resource training them to do their jobs!
I do believe this should start early within the school curriculum. There are calls to look at and update the personal sex and health education curriculum (PSHE) to reflect new concerns of parents and teachers. This would be an opportunity to talk about menopause. As well as being taught about periods at the start of their reproductive life, girls and boys need to understand about later stages of life, how it can affect them in positive and negative ways.
I’m always delighted to connect with others who care about this issue, and to do what I can to highlight other concerns. So please drop me a line. I’m not an expert, I’m still learning, and so I welcome all and any input! You can get in touch with me at rachelmaclean.uk/contact
Rachel Maclean is the Conservative MP for Redditch