The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (July 31st 2022)
Should menopause, like pregnancy, be a protected characteristic at work? And why we need to change the story about the lives of older women.
Hope some of you are off on holiday. I can’t wait for mine, I’ve just come back from speaking about midlife at the Primadonna Festival in Suffolk (which is where I am with Amanda de Winter author of The Sucxess Code and alumni of our first Noon retreat in the pic above). I’m off to Pembrokeshire next week hoping for some sea and sunshine.
But before the term comes to a close, parliament has been focussing on Queenagers (well on menopause actually)… I’d love to know what you think about this.
Do menopausal women – broadly those aged 45-55 – need protection at work? According to the powerful Equalities Committee of MPs, they do. This week it was decided that menopause, like pregnancy, should have legal status to stop discrimination against the 51% of the population who will go through it; there are 4.5 million 50-64-year-old women currently employed (about one in six of all workers). Caroline Nokes MP, the committee chair, said, “stigma, shame and dismissive cultures can and must be dismantled…we must build a society which not only supports those going through the menopause but encourages some of the most experienced and skilled workers in our economy to thrive.”
As a 51-year-old woman, I am all for equal treatment under the law – around 25% of women suffer terribly with this hormonal change, Noon’s Dr Nighat says they can become suicidally depressed and as well as mood swings and anxiety suffer debilitating physical symptoms too; like those who have a difficult pregnancy they need protection in the workplace. Around one in ten menopausal women have left their job according to the Menopause Charity, because they felt so rough and unsupported – and a raft of recent Employment Tribunals are proof that employers need to do more to help women survive the pinch points of the change.
For decades menopause has been discussed only in hushed whispers, generations of women have suffered in silence, ill-served by GPs who received little training in the condition (thanks to campaigning this is beginning to change). Against this background, companies acknowledging that menopause really is a thing, appointing menopause ambassadors and taking women’s symptoms seriously is just natural justice and long overdue.
But we must be careful we don’t kill with kindness. The most important bit of Caroline Nokes’s statement is about how midlife women are “experienced and skilled workers”; I don’t want that to be forgotten in the hullaballoo about symptoms such as hot flushes, sleepless nights and brain fog. In a survey carried out for Noon.org.uk with Vision Express last year, we found that 78% of women in this bracket DON’T want to be branded as menopausal. It stands to reason – my teenage daughters would never be referred to as ‘menstrual’. And we’d never say to a midlife man: “You’re in the Viagra years, welcome to the limp dick club!”
Similarly, women in their fifties don’t want to be seen purely as walking hot flushes, hysterical bundles of hormones. The whole point of feminism was for women to escape their biology; for the womb not to be their destiny. There is more to us than our physicality!
So of course we need workplace protection, doctors who understand the symptoms (a quarter of women who go to their GP for menopause symptoms are given anti-depressants, not Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) but we don’t need another reason for employers to think twice before employing a woman. Women already hit trouble during child-rearing years with many firms reluctant to foot the bill for parental leave. I don’t want necessary menopause protection to obscure the fact that the reality of women over fifty as employees is that they are mercifully free of the stresses and strains afflicting working mothers with younger children. We Queenagers are brilliant workers; experienced, skilled (as Nokes points out) unencumbered with having to get home for nursery pick up (and nearly a third of university-educated women of this age don’t have children). Women at this point already hit the stigma of gendered ageism (where ageism meets sexism) we tend not to be represented, 60% of women at this stage ‘feel invisible’ in a culture which values fancy-ability and fecundity in females above all else.
This story needs to change. Queenagers are a force. We are behind 90 per cent of all household spending decisions and according to Forbes Magazine outspend millennial women by 250%. There has never been a generation of women in midlife like us; we’ve worked all the way through our lives – in the 2019 census women over 40 started earning more money than women under forty for the first time. Yet mainstream brands rarely represent or speak directly to us. As a female partner in a law firm told me the other day: “I’m 51, single, childless and in the cultural narrative it’s as if I don’t exist.”
So while I am sure I am not alone in welcoming the new legal and employment protections around menopause, we Queenagers don’t want to only appear in the national consciousness as menopausal – we want to be acknowledged for the incredible, powerful, impressive women we are. Sure we need to fix the health inequalities – but so we can embrace these midlife years which are where we women come into our prime.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I want younger women to look forward to being fifty, as the time when they become the women they are supposed to be. Not fear or dread it as the time when they vanish. I worry that sometimes the focus on the worst aspects of menopause is terrifying not only for employers but younger women; when the truth is with the right treatment this time of life is where we get freedom, a surge of energy – the Japanese call menopause the second spring. In our Noon community, we see all the incredible things that these women are capable of: cycling up mountains, writing books, retraining as doctors, setting up successful businesses at a rate faster than any other cohort, and smashing the glass ceiling in corporates. (If you fancy reading some of these go to Noon and click on Transformation stories)
Yes, we need protection from discrimination as we cope with menopause but more than that we need to start valuing women as they move into age and wisdom and not writing them off. So three cheers for MPs for recognising there is an issue – but let’s celebrate Queenagers not stigmatise them.
And while we are at it… why is it that the only older women we see in the media are those who are entirely unrepresentative of normal Queenagers? I give you Carla Bruni. Fifty four and still modelling on the Paris catwalk – she appeared recently in an outfit I couldn’t have worn at 18; it revealed her entire torso from under the bra-line to her pubic bone. Her body impossibly toned and flat – a galactic universe away from the lumps and bumps of most midlife women. She did admit that she works out with a gruelling mixture of elliptical bike (whatever that is) Barre (a form of ballet-based torture) and pilates for two hours every day and dedicates ‘an unspeakable effort’ to her diet and staying thin. But hanging out on a boat in Ibiza with husband ex-French leader Nicolas Sarkozy she looks 19, not fifty!
Why is it that the only older women we are allowed to see are those who don’t look old at all? It’s not a coincidence that we’re always being shown pictures of Helen Mirren in her bikini, or J-Lo with her peachy middle-aged bottom. We need to change the lens we put on women – we are more than our bodies and faces. We need to be valued for our wisdom and our characters. After all, older men appear on our screens and pages looking battered and wrinkly, with jowls and wine bellies and florid faces – where are the female equivalents? Why should men be seen as silver foxes, getting better with age like fine wine however they look, while women are too often seen as peaches: one wrinkle and we’re done? If we are to change the narrative about older women in our culture to one more fit for purpose we need to get to grips with this. Otherwise equality will forever elude us.
(ps I wrote about this in the Telegraph last week and received the saddest email from a former newsreader saying she’d been drummed out at 47 and ‘told to get a job in Tesco’ because she was too old to be on screen. I’ve just asked her to write her story for the site. But this is more proof if any were needed that our culture doesn’t want to acknowledge or look at older women; this has to change for all women! We need to do away with this ridiculous ageism!)
It’s been quite a week!
On Wednesday I went to the Olympic Park in Stratford East London to celebrate it being 10 years since the opening ceremony of the London games. We watched a film showing the highlights of Danny Boyle’s epic – David Beckham speeding up the Thames with the Olympic flag, the Queen and Daniel Craig parachuting into the stadium; happy days! As the Commonwealth Games get started in Birmingham with its accompanying similarly swanky new infrastructure and urban renewal project, it was fascinating to stroll through the Olympic park with its new flats, choreographed gardens, the shopping mecca that is Westfield and the amazing new transport links (Elizabeth Line anyone?) and think about what a desert it was only fifteen years ago. It showed the transformational power of sport in action.
Not only did the 2012 Olympics transform east London but it changed the way Brits felt about themselves; the whole of that opening ceremony is a love-letter to Britain, the best advert ever for our country and our culture. What other nation would poke fun at its monarch by getting her to jump out of helicopter with James Bond? Where else could a Beatle serenade the enormous global crowd? Or recite Shakespeare to a multi-million audience while hero-ing the achievements of disabled athletes as we did in the opening ceremony of the para-olympics. No wonder tourist visits to London soared in the aftermath and we all felt good about ourselves.
I feel particularly proud that my stepmother Tessa Jowell was so instrumental in bringing the Olympics to London. As Culture Secretary she personally persuaded Tony Blair the government should go for it, championing the bid and the project. Our downstairs loo sported one of her proudest possessions – a photo of her being hugged by David Beckham when they won the bid in Hong Kong, I don’t think I ever saw her look so happy.
On Wednesday a special film to raise money for her Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Foundation was screened in the Olympic park, presented by my gorgeous sister Jess Mills; despite dying tragically young of a glioblastoma, Tessa is still helping people. A young man with stage four cancer who had been helped by one of the new centres established in her name was at the screening; he was full of praise for the joined-up treatment he received which could save his life and be a model for centres of excellence within the NHS.
The park was full of former game-makers from the 2012 Olympics talking about how it had been the high point of their lives. These big moments are what define us as a nation, what hold us together in tough times. If you want to cheer yourself up, rewatch those opening ceremonies. Seeing them again this week filled me with joy. I’m hoping the Commonwealth Games will also throw up some epic moments to cheer us up in the next few days. And just think how the success of the Lionesses has and is changing attitudes to female sport. I love it that the male version of their strip has now sold out. Just as much as I love all the young girls who now aspire to be professional footballers. Sport really can change attitudes, infrastructure and the world. In these tough times it’s important to remember that. If you want to help with their work on brain cancer you can donate here.
And there is still time to sign up for our brilliant Katherine Daniels Facial-A-Long – my skin is super sensitive and most products bring me up in hives, but these are miraculous. That’s why we’ve teamed up with this great British Queenager brand so you can have a facial with their products at home. It costs £30 but we’ll send you £80 of products and Noon Beauty Director Beatrice Aidin and the Katherine Daniels team will tell you what to do. All from your own home. We’ve got a few spots left – the products have to be sent out by August 2nd so hurry!
Thanks to all of you subscribers, you make all our work at Noon possible.
And do tell me what you think about menopause being a protected characteristic in the comments below.
By Eleanor Mills
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