The menopause moment: Is all the talk really helping women?

Growing public conversations around menopause are shattering taboos. But they only help some women in the workplace.

Kristin Davis poses during the red carpet premiere of the "Sex and The City"
Actress Kristin Davis poses during the red carpet premiere of And Just Like That in New York City, US, December 8, 2021. In the show, Davis's character drives conversations on menopause, traditionally treated as a taboo subject [File: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters]

Actress Courteney Cox, famous for her role in Friends, recently posted an updated version of her 1985 tampon advert on Instagram. In this parodic version of the original, menstruation problems are replaced with menopausal misery. “Menopause will change the way you feel about getting older. Menopause will eat you alive. It’s horrible,” Cox tells her followers.

Cox is just one of many high-profile women and celebrities who have been speaking publicly about their experiences of menopause. Among the growing list are the likes of Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, Naomi Watts and Gwyneth Paltrow. In the United Kingdom, the well-known television presenter and personality Davina McCall has been credited with shattering lingering taboos around menopause with her Channel 4 television documentary Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause, and its sequel Sex, Mind and the Menopause.

There has also been a flurry of best-selling books published on the topic, and menopause has figured prominently in the scripts of recent popular television shows, such as And Just Like That and Borgen. HarperCollins, one of the world’s biggest publishers, now even has a new genre: “the menopause thriller“.

Indeed, menopause appears to be enjoying a moment.

Historically, menopause was a subject veiled in shame and silence or, alternatively, framed as a deficiency disease. That is clearly changing. But as October – World Menopause Month – winds down, it is important to ask whether all of the increased chatter around menopause is actually helping women.

Consider the United Kingdom, where menopause is currently a “hot” topic. Amid a national shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which is used to alleviate menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, the British government recently introduced a slew of new menopause-related policies. These included: cutting the cost of repeated HRT prescriptions, establishing a cross-government Menopause Taskforce, and appointing an “HRT tsar” tasked with helping to prevent future HRT shortages and blockages in supply.

In the workplace, a growing number of British companies, organisations and charities have begun developing guidelines and training programmes to raise menopause awareness and to offer workplace support for menopausal women.

Part of the reason for menopause’s heightened visibility has to do with the fact that the ageing female population has expanded significantly in the past couple of decades. Women above 50 years of age are the fastest-growing segment of the British workforce. More and more of these women are taking on senior managerial roles in both the private and public sectors, and some have become strong advocates of changing the way in which menopause is perceived.

However, there is more to the dramatic rise in public discussion about menopause than just demographics. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, and especially since 2012, the UK government adopted austerity measures, cutting pensions and benefit systems. Instead, through policies like Fuller Working Lives, Britain has tried to keep people older than 50 within the paid workforce. Ageing women have been a particular focus of this approach.

Workplace policies and media campaigns that support women experiencing menopause are certainly helpful for those who want to keep working as they grow older. A Fawcett Society report highlights that many women either leave or consider leaving the workforce due to debilitating symptoms associated with menopause and the lack of workplace support.

However, it is clear that these developments are not simply about empowering women; rather, they are part of a broader economic and political effort to prevent this growing demographic from becoming dependent on the state.

The embrace of popular neoliberal feminism in Anglo-American culture has also provided a conducive backdrop for the increased attention given to menopause. This version of feminism foregrounds individual and psychological transformation while championing women’s individual empowerment, resilience and positivity – without challenging the underlying socioeconomic structures that shape our lives and how we experience menopause.

We witness this clearly in how the media often cover celebrity women – such as Penny Lancaster and Lorraine Kelly – speaking about their menopausal experience. The message is often that while the experience is challenging, self-work and positive thinking can make the transition empowering and liberating.

Finally, menopause is good for business. The rise in menopause talk appears to be bolstered and partly driven by an expanding demand for menopause remedies, wellness programmes, specialised retreats and apps. Pharmaceuticals, cosmetic companies, the wellness industry and savvy entrepreneurs are taking full advantage of this opportunity to make profits.

Menopause’s heightened visibility and its current framing in more positive terms undoubtedly challenge the silence and stigma that have historically surrounded the issue. It is also encouraging that workplaces are seeking to support people going through menopause.

However, while many of these developments are important and welcome, where does this leave the many women working in low-skill and badly paid jobs? The menopause moment thus may not be beneficial for all women or ageing people, animated as it is by neoliberal policies and a cultural emphasis on how women can “fix” the “problem” in individualised and “empowering” ways.

The vast majority of women simply cannot afford costly remedies let alone a “menopause vacation”. This is particularly true as the UK faces a cost-of-living crisis. More visibility is good, but only if it translates into meaningful cultural shifts alongside policies that benefit all ageing women and all other people who experience menopause – and particularly the most vulnerable.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.