Comment: Menopause – a critical juncture for diversity

I’m not going to lie, I’m not always a big fan of days when we’re told we have to write about a particular topic and anyway, I forgot that yesterday (18 October) was menopause day. But my call to arms was the brilliant and much commented on post on LinkedIn from Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, business manager at Simmons & Simmons Solutions, which reminded me that we need to be shouting from the rooftops about a topic that is causing women in their droves to leave a sector that already has far too few senior women.

Hamilton-Bruce was previously head of client operations at Wavelength Law, which was acquired by Simmons in January 2020. She posted as part of the #thislittlegirlisme campaign, which sees successful women across the globe post a photograph of themselves as a child, followed by the challenges they have faced on their way to success, in order to help and inspire the next generation of women. Hamilton-Bruce chose to talk about the fact that ‘this little girl’ didn’t know that she would experience menopause as part of her 40th birthday celebrations.

When I drop Hamilton-Bruce a message to ask if she would be happy to talk to me, her immediate reply is: “Always happy to talk about the menopause! Once I started talking, I’ve not been able to stop! 🤣”

It’s a good thing, too. Over Zoom, Hamilton-Bruce tells me: “Standard Chartered has recently released some high-level research findings on menopause, and their findings in the financial sector are similar to previous research – 25% of women within the peri or menopausal demographic are considering exiting because of the symptoms of menopause at work. That might mean they are leaving entirely, seeking a lower grade role or deciding not to take promotion to help manage their experience.”

It’s a seriously depressing statistic. But is talking about it enough?

Menopause is still an uncomfortable and taboo subject for many, not helped by a wider lack of education in society. Whereas kids have long squirmed through sex education at school and been forced to talk about periods and babies, Hamilton-Bruce says: “My son is 16 and the first cohort to be educated at school about menopause – it was only introduced to the syllabus in 2020.”

That means the women who are going through menopause also often have no idea what to expect and are often completely unprepared. Discussing the LinkedIn post that sparked this conversation, Hamilton-Bruce says: “I had such great engagement with that post. One of the people who commented described being better prepared and receiving great support from her GP because of the experience her mum and her sister had before her.  She knew what she was looking out for, but I had no idea.

“If I’d given any thought to the menopause, it was to think of it as some sort of step before retirement. But night sweats stole my sleep, and I was exhausted, and then there’s the brain fog where the words were on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t get them out.”

Talking is one thing, but what, in reality, can employers do to help employees experiencing these symptoms continue to thrive? Hamilton-Bruce says: “When I first started talking about this, the firm asked me what I would have changed, and for me it was simply that I needed someone to talk safely with. I didn’t want a badge, or to air what I was going through, but I did need a safe space to talk about how I might cope with the things I was experiencing.”

She adds: “If you take a woman who is aged 20-30, 30-40, 40-50, 50-60 (and beyond) there will be life events that she might going through, and if you’re an employer who wants to retain women at the height of their power, these are the things you need to be aware of. We are not asking our employer to fix those external factors, but to take them into account.”

There are many really good commercial reasons for employers to make sure they don’t lose a whole swathe of women who not only have experience, seniority and enormous amounts of knowledge, but also confidence. Hamilton-Bruce says: “While I haven’t lost my insecurities, my confidence in my own skin has grown enormously and that’s a confidence I see in more women in the 50s, which is why they are so valuable.”

With clients increasingly making diversity a part of their selection criteria, plus law firms on the hook to achieve ambitious diversity targets, how to stop your senior female employees walking out the door ought to be something we talk about all year round, not just on menopause day.

caroline@legaltechnology.com

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