Hot and Heavy: Closing the Gender Health Gap
by Rita Silvan, CIM
Jennifer is a 48-year-old vice-president of IT. Since joining the firm over 15 years ago, she quickly moved up the ranks and now manages a large team. Jennifer always enjoyed the fast pace and variety of the work but lately she isn't feeling like herself. She feels tired and suffers from chronic joint pain. Her sleep is disturbed due to night sweats which drench the bed sheets. It feels like her body is severely dehydrated all the time, everything from her eyes, face, and throat to her vagina feel itchy, and uncomfortable and urination and sex are often painful. In work meetings, she sometimes loses her train of thought. She feels irritable and angry and has occasionally snapped at colleagues.
After a few months and a visit to her doctor, who tells her she is experiencing the symptoms of perimenopause, Jennifer discusses the situation with the head of human resources. Because her workplace has a Menopause Program, a treatment plan is established to support Jennifer through this transition, including paid menopause leave and psychological counselling.
Maybe in the Bizarro World of DC Comics where everything we know on Earth is inverted, women get the support they need to navigate this life stage but in today's world women's health and emotional needs are often overlooked leaving them to fend for themselves at great personal and professional cost.
Total addressable market (TAM) is 50% of the world's population
Symptoms of menopause usually begin between the ages of 45 and 55. After a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 months, she's officially in menopause. Perimenopause is the name given to the transition period - anywhere from 7 to 14 years - during which the body is readjusting hormonal levels which results in a wide range of side effects that vary in severity.
In Canada, an estimated five million women are over the age of 50. Among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, women in this cohort account for 11% of the workforce, a number that is rising as populations age. By 2030, one-quarter of the world's population will be menopausal. (Bring on the CBD gummies.)
Careful readers will recognize that menopause inconveniently coincides with women's most productive and most lucrative years of employment. By the mid-forties, most women are poised for promotions to senior leadership roles, in line for stretch assignments, and on a trajectory to receive the highest earnings of their lifetimes. By rights, this should be a great time: the risks of an unwanted pregnancy are low to nil, childcare responsibilities are lessened (although caring for elderly relatives may increase), and there is likely greater personal autonomy and flexibility to take advantage of career opportunities involving travel or extended work hours.
Jumped or pushed?
Yet, a lack of understanding and support for women experiencing menopause by the medical establishment and by workplaces, leads women to "lean out" of future career advancement. By one estimate, productivity losses related to menopause are more than US$150 billion annually and upwards of US$810 billion when healthcare costs are included. According to a 2019 UK study, a majority of women said menopause had a negative impact on them at work with almost a third taking sick leave due to the severity of their symptoms but only a quarter disclosing the real reason for their absence to their managers. Almost half of the respondents said they felt more supported by colleagues (48%) than by their managers (32%).
In some cases, women in their prime are leaving the workforce altogether. An Australian study estimated that if 20% of women retired earlier than expected due to menopausal health issues, the economic loss would be greater than $35 billion. A 2022 reader survey by Women's Health Magazine found that 57% of respondents who experience hormonal and gynaecological ailments said it harmed their careers. Another study reported that, in the U.K., 10% of women between 45-55 left their jobs due to menopausal symptoms.
While maternity leave is a legislated benefit, menopause remains a taboo topic and is not included in HR policies. A recent U.K. initiative to protect the rights of women going through menopause and make it illegal to discriminate against them was rejected in January by the government on the grounds that it discriminates against men. (As does menstruation because men don't get that either.)
Leaving an employer due to health reasons and then, later, trying to re-enter the workforce is fraught. Women over the age of 50 experience widespread workplace discrimination and are the demographic most likely to become long-term unemployed. Age discrimination in the workplace applies to both women and men but it disproportionately affects women who are subject to a hat-trick of discriminatory practices: age and gender, plus "lookism" - being judged more harshly when they no longer look youthful. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco sent 40,000 fictitious job applications to 13,000 online job postings. Older women, regardless of experience level, were the least likely to get a response.
Leaving the workforce prematurely can have severe economic consequences; a 45-year-old Canadian woman can expect to live another 40 years. Losing a job also has the knock-on effects of losing health and insurance coverage, paid vacation and other benefits, and lower lifetime pension payouts.
In her series Inside Amy Shumer, the comedian had a viral skit called "Last F***able Day." In it, a group of leading actors including Julia Louis-Drefus, Tina Fey, and Patricia Arquette are celebrating Julia's LFD, which they explain to a bewildered Amy, is the moment when a woman is no longer considered youthful and attractive. Whether it's former CTV news anchor Lisa LaFlamme allegedly being fired for showing her grey hair on-air, CNN anchor Don Lemon dismissing Nikki Haley's political aspirations by saying she was "not in her prime" at 51, or Nancy in accounting who stashes a change of clothes in her cubicle because of hot flashes, why should women at work have a target on their backs when they're no longer eye candy for men?
About Rita Silvan
Rita Silvan, CIM, is a financial writer and public speaker who specializes in women and investing who has appeared on BNN Bloomberg, CBC Newsworld, conference panels, and other media outlets. She is the former editor-in-chief of ELLE Canada magazine and Golden Girl Finance and writes a blog about money & lifestyle at ellesworth.ca and the Canadian Moneysaver Magazine.
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