Series Fourteen, Episode Four – Focus on the menopause and reframing the narrative

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In honour of World Menopause Month, host Julia Streets is joined by Sam Simister, co-founder of GenM and Rachel Lankester, founder of Magnificent Midlife. 

Together they focus on redressing the balance and creating a more positive discussion about the menopause, while also focusing their attention on some key areas of concern, for example gendered ageism and the negative narrative in general. They offer lots of best practice inspiration and practical insights to improve corporate behaviour in order to change the narrative around menopause. This positive conversation seeks to reframe this stage of life as being less of a taboo concern and more of a transition where women can ultimately flourish.

Sam Simister

Sam Simister is a Board Director at Innocent Drinks, Europe’s No. 1 juice and smoothie brand (operating across EU & Asia with annual sales in excess of £500m) and is embarking on a new chapter to drive growth in the healthy drinking sector across Europe and more widely. Joining in 2005 and a Board Director since 2012, to enable this growth, Sam and her CEO created a position to research, develop and deliver a future pipeline of innovation. The Future Development Role includes Global portfolio expansion for Innocent Drinks; Sam launched the China business through covid. In addition to Sam’s Board role at Innocent, she is the co-founder of GenM, the Menopause Partner for Brands. Launched after a debilitating perimenopause, and following pioneering research into how women in midlife were feeling, GenM's mission is to drive real change through uniting responsible businesses to normalize the conversation, thereby breaking the taboo for those touched by the menopause. Sam is also an Advisory Board Member for LEAD, whose mission is to attract, retain and advance women in the retail and consumer goods industry in Europe through education, leadership and business development.

Rachel Lankester

Rachel Lankester is the founder of Magnificent Midlife, an online hub celebrating and empowering women 40+. She's the author of Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond and host of the Magnificent Midlife podcast. After a shocking early menopause diagnosis at 41, she scratched her own itch and created what she wasn't able to find to help herself. This includes 1-1 and group mentoring, educational resources and an online membership program to help women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life. Before her midlife reinvention, Rachel had a long career in financial communications, as a director at Citigate Dewe Rogerson, working in London and New York, and as Group Communications Manager at Smith Group. As well as helping women in midlife she also works as a freelance communications consultant and corporate writer.

Series Fourteen, Episode Four Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets, and welcome to DiverCity podcast, talking about equity, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine in light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change.

Before we get started today, we thank our friends at City AM who have given the DiverCity a new home at Impact AM, publishing and promoting both our episodes and our supporting blog series, so their readers can stay on top of the very latest Diversity and Inclusion debate. You may want to check out CityAM’s own podcast, called The City View, for all the latest news and opinion from City, because we at DiverCity Podcast are huge fans.

Now, I’m really looking forward to this discussion, because this is exactly where I find myself in my life. We’re going to be talking about the menopause, and today I’m joined by Sam Simister and Rachel Lancaster.

Allow me to introduce them to you, Sam Simister has extensive international experience with multinational corporations, entrepreneurial companies, and indeed, her own venture. Today, in addition to her board role at Innocent, Europe’s number one juice smoothie brand, she is the co-founder of Gen-M. It’s the first of its kind, menopause partner for brands.

Launched after a debilitating perimenopause, and following pioneering research into how women in midlife were feeling, GenM is determined and on course to drive real change by uniting responsible businesses who take the lead to normalise the conversation, and break some of those taboos, and their customers or employees, those ultimately touched by the menopause.

Sam, it’s great to have you on the show. Thanks for being with us.

Sam: Thanks, Julia, it’s fantastic to be here.

Julia: Joining us is our second guest, Rachel Lancaster. Now she has had a long career in the world of financial communications. She worked at Citygate Dewes Rogerson, both in London and in New York, and also, as Group Communications Manager at Smith Group. Today, she is the Founder of Magnificent Midlife, an online hub celebrating and empowering women, aged 40+.

She’s the author of her book, Magnificent Midlife: Transform Your Middle Years, Menopause and Beyond, and host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast. After a shocking early menopause diagnosis at 41, she created what she wasn’t able to find herself, a community that includes mentoring, educational resources, and an online membership programme, all to help women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life.

Rachel, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.

Rachel: Julia, it’s so lovely to be here. Thank you.

Julia :It’s wonderful to have you both on the show, and I am itching to find out what you are up to. Sam, can I come to you first of all? What are you focused on right now?

Sam: Thank you. It’s probably easier to say what we’re not focused on, but I’ll try and keep this short. GenM, as the menopause partner of brands, as you might expect, has a really clear and focused marketing calendar for the year. In a very short space of time, nine months to be exact, we’ve now onboarded 65 and growing incredible brands, brands that your listeners will know, household names.

Delighted to say too, that we have just onboarded an incredible brand, a city focused brand who will be announcing very soon. But right now, I’m focused on supporting our partners, submit their entries for the world’s first Gen-M Menopause Awards. We want to celebrate all of the steps, however small, that our partners are making to support this incredibly important audience, whether it be their employees, so an internal focus, or whether it be an external focus for consumers. And then, moving forward, because these awards will be announced at the time that your listeners may be listening to this, then we will be very much focused on October, which is Menopause Month.

And as has come to be expected, we’ll be launching our national campaign to continue to raise awareness, and also importantly, the tracker for our pioneering Invisibility Report, two years on to see how the needle has in fact moved.

Julia: Well, I’ll be looking forward to the results of that survey, and also, the wonderful awards, the announcements of the awards. So thank you very much for your opening remarks. So fantastic to hear that. Rachel, tell us what you are up to. I can’t imagine for a second, anybody who’s published a book and has a podcast, is idle in any way, shape, or form?

Rachel: In my spare moments, I’m exploring the impact of gendered ageism on women at work and our experience of menopause, especially in Anglo countries. We might get into that later, but it’s particularly bad in Anglo countries.

I’m trying to redress the balance around our understanding of menopause. And I think the discussion has gone too far towards negativity and requiring a panacea to fix a natural transition. I’m keen to demonstrate how changes in diet, lifestyle mindset, can help women transition more easily through menopause. So I’m trying to get my book into as many women’s hands as possible, because everything I know, and everything I’ve learned, is in that book.

I’d like us to start seeing menopause not just as something terrible, but as an opportunity to start listening to our bodies, and sort out some of the underlying issues that start to appear when our hormones start to change. I want menopause to be about two slices of your midlife cake, not the whole damn cake. That’s what I’m focused on, moving forward.

Julia: I love that, because you’re getting such a positive response from Sam, in response to those comments as well. Sam, let me come into to you, first of all, with our first question. When we think about the changing face of the workforce exactly as Rachel has explained it, though, it is a moment, or it is a chunk of time, not the entire definition of a woman and how she presents, if you like. I know you’ve got some data and some insights about the changing face of the female workforce, particularly with regard to age. I’m keen to know, where do you see our focus should be? Why do you think improvements could be made?

Sam: Can I just say, I’m nodding away here. I could not agree with Rachel’s comments more. It’s so refreshing, Rachel, to hear you talk about, this is a positive period in our lives.

I don’t want the menopause, or this period to be feared, or to be talked about in a way that those coming up behind us are looking at this period and thinking, “Good God, what am I entering into?” So I just wanted to say that.

I think it’s a great question. We do know, look, forgive me, I’m a biochemist. I like data, but data is important. I think it’s really interesting, when we look at the research, to see that 88% of the women we spoke to really do want their workplaces to better understand this natural transition that they’re going through. I think what’s really concerning is that over half the women we spoke to were absolutely petrified of even talking about some of the changes that their bodies were going through.

We know that the symptoms really do, and can drive, some feelings and some experiences that may not see us at our best. So I think it’s really important that that is addressed. I also think that when you look at the length of time that the perimenopause and menopause can last, on average, eight years, maybe up to 15. I think it’s quite a long stretch, so getting this right I think is important on every level, certainly as Rachel references. Lots of data that says why businesses should be doing more for their employees. I think the first place that I would love to see a start is creating a nice, safe environment for women, and those touched by the menopause, to feel safe and comfortable having a conversation to start with. I know that’s now been my experience, because I’ve opened up the conversation at work, but that has to be the starting point. It is not a policy or a tick box exercise, it’s so much greater than that.

We are starting through our partners to see some wonderful examples, actually, of businesses starting to do just that. We may come onto sharing some of those examples later, but I’m feeling optimistic, with the right support, businesses can do more to support their employees, as the employees can then do to support themselves.

Julia: As you say, we’ve got to come onto some really sort of practical insights about how to change the narrative, how to change the conversation, and also how to change corporate attitudes, a little later. Before we do that, I do want to just to start with a very clear concern that I have that’s come out of conversation about the menopause, which is the concern about gendered ageism.

Rachel, I wonder if I could bring you in here for your thoughts about this, and how is this playing out in the workplace? Also, have you seen any changes since lockdown?

Rachel: I actually think that gendered ageism is responsible for a lot of the issues that women have with menopause, especially in the workplace. Now, that might be a radical statement to make, but there is research out there that shows how we feel about ageing, and how we feel about the menopause, directly impacts our experience of it.

If we are taught that menopause is the end of meaningful life, that we no longer have a value post-menopause, if gendered ageism is so acute that women feel they have to dye their hair just to stay in work, let alone get a new job, then that is going to impact how they feel, and how they transition from being a fertile woman, to being an infertile woman.

Gendered ageism, I think, is the bigger picture, and I think we are in danger. I am so supportive of everything that’s being done with menopause in the workplace, but I think there is a danger that we tick the menopause box, and we think the job is done for older women. And it is not.

Menopause is just the beginning, because we need to completely reframe how we view menopause. It’s not something negative, it’s something positive. It’s where women transition into a new stage of life. We become like the whales, the female whales. It’s a matriarchal society. They become the leaders of their pods, post-menopause, for up to 50 years.

Now, when you know that, does that not transform how women can feel about menopause, and how they can feel about moving into the next stage of their life? I find that really, really powerful. Darcey Steinke, who wrote Flash Count Diary, who introduced me to the whales, she credits meeting Granny the whale, in a kayak off the coast of Nova Scotia, with not just transforming how she mentally felt about menopause, but her actual physical experience too.

Because she had written herself off, and I think a lot of women, we can be ageist towards ourselves. We buy into all the narratives. We buy the anti-ageing creams. I hate that term, anti-ageing. We buy the creams, we dye our hair, we do what we think we’re supposed to do, we shrink because we think we don’t have value anymore.

We don’t take up space and push ourselves forward as we might have done, when we were younger, because we’ve also bought into the fact that gendered ageism is right. Well, it isn’t right. I find that it is so, so important.

Julia: It is so important. I find I’m a member, a very, very senior women’s networks in the industry and actually other industries do. What I find it is that when you reach the stage of life, there are some women who are really flourishing, who are really thriving, as they go through their magnificent midlife. That’s why I love the way you describe it.

Yes, I do also see, as you say, there are many who are shrinking, and becoming wallflowers in so many ways, because of the narrative that perhaps is being played out in front of it. It’s really interesting to hear both your thoughts on that. I wonder whether we can get into some best practise, actually, what good examples of where you see the narrative shifting, where you see corporate behaviour really embracing and actively engaging with a conversation about midlife.

Sam, could I come to you, first of all? I wonder if I could ask you to skew your remarks, particularly with financial services in mind, as much as you possibly can. Now, how can businesses really begin to make realistic and meaningful change?

Sam: Well, again, I’m nodding furiously at this conversation. Gen-M isn’t a workplace brand or business, per se. We see this as a business opportunity, whether you are a fast moving goods brand, or whether you have clients, such as the financial services.

The workplace is one element of it, but how we are represented, and how women are represented, is absolutely key. Again, back to the research, over 80% of people we spoke to said they are tired of feeling invisible, and they want better representation. They don’t want to be airbrushed in advertisements that are geared towards them.

I think that we are starting to see, to answer your question, some chinks of light, some small positive moves towards addressing this. Certainly, some of our partners are thinking very carefully about the narrative that they use when talking about midlife. They’re thinking very carefully about the internal comms, and representing their employees in the right way.

They’re actually asking them what they want, and what would work for them, which I think is really encouraging. When we look externally, we are working with two or three partners, who are really now starting to address this issue, of what is the right representation for women in midlife?

As Rachel says, not necessarily represented by the generation that is a lot younger than us, but our generation, where we can look at a piece of advertising, or a piece of literature and communication, and recognise ourselves in all of our midlife glory. I think there are some really positive things that are happening, both internally and externally, that will slowly address this.

I think businesses, they employ the majority of this audience, and they serve the majority of this audience. And that is why we have brought together responsible businesses, because as a collective, if we are focused on the right things, we will drive change and pace.

Julia: It’s fascinating with hearing you talk. Because we talk a lot of on the podcast about enlightened leadership, and in the conversation with diversity, equity inclusion, a really big piece of that is ask your workforce. The answers are found in your workforce, which is kind of what you’re saying there, but also, the whole point about identity and representation, positive role modelling.

Rachel, can I bring you in here? I’d love to hear your thoughts about, how do we begin to change this corporate narrative about menopause, and is there anything we’re not talking about, that we should be talking about?

Rachel: It’s really important to redress that balance, because I think at the moment people are seeing menopause as so negative. The celebrities have all had difficult menopause experiences, so that becomes the prevailing narrative. And there’s a danger, I think, for the bad experience of some high profile women to become the blueprint for everybody else.

Actually, there’s only 25% of women who have a bad experience of menopause. Then there’s 25% who don’t notice anything much, other than a cessation of periods. And the rest of us are kind of in the middle. But trying to redress that, I think, is really important.

Because the fear that has been created recently, I think it can become self-fulfilling prophecy. And I think, as Sam said, we don’t want the younger women to be so fearful that they’re thinking, “Oh, goodness me, here comes menopause.” Whereas, actually, I want them to be thinking, “Wow, here comes menopause, and I am going to transition into being this amazing, powerful woman.”

There’s research that’s been done by Dr. Louann Brizendine about it. Her book is called, The Upgrade: How the Female Brain Gets Stronger and Better with Age. Actually, post-menopause, during menopause, we may suffer from brain fog. I know that is a real issue, especially when you’re grappling with lots of things, but that gets better. It goes away, post-menopause, and we have better focus. We’re more able to tackle complex tasks.

We do get an upgrade, and this is a narrative which isn’t really communicated very much. So I would very much like businesses to be embracing this period as, menopause is a tunnel, it’s not a cave. It may be difficult as we’re going through it, but you may well find that you are absolutely amazing, and on fire, at the end of it. And that’s a completely different way for women to appreciate it.

In terms of technical things, always ask what people want, always, always ask. There’s no point in trying to give them something that they may not want. Some women won’t want to talk about it in the workplace. Some women just want to be left alone to get on and do what they’re doing. So don’t force them to talk about it, either.

Simple things, like having some flexibility about room temperature. I know that women suffer in offices, often because it’s too cold, because the men like it so cold. Well, when we get to menopause, maybe that changes, and we like it to be a bit cooler. So having a discussion around temperature, and an ability to change it, having some fans in place, having a flexible structure, so you can come in later if your sleep is upset, for example, so that we have more flexibility there, so that women feel they are valued, and can be accommodated because they are valued.

And it’s that value piece which is so important, which goes back to the gendered ageism, that we technically, or people think we lose our value, as we get older. We don’t. Age is a criterion for diversity, and we tend to forget that.

Julia: Absolutely. I’m loving, by the way, the references, the data, the articles and the books that you’re bringing in. And I think this is a beautiful moment to bring in our colleague, Cynthia Akinsanya, who has some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: A study by Standard Chartered Bank and the UK’s Financial Services Skills Commission shows that women’s experience of menopause can impact their confidence in the workplace, and will have a long term effect on female retention, and the leadership pipeline across financial services, as well as exacerbate the skill shortage the industry faces. The 2021 report, Menopause in the Workplace: Impact on Women in Financial Services, reveals how in the UK, it is estimated that one in 10 employees in the financial services sector are currently going through the menopause.

A survey of 2,400 financial services workers in the UK, conducted by the Fawcett Society, found that around half of employees experiencing the menopause says it makes them less likely to want to progress in their role, apply for a promotion, or take on extra responsibilities, due to the experiences with the menopause. This is despite 38% stating, they want to progress to a more senior role.

Additionally, a culture of silence means the impact of the menopause is hidden. Only 22% of women and trans men currently experiencing the menopause disclose their status at work.

Julia: Thank you, Cynthia, as always, for the research to support the discussion. Let’s just take a moment, if I may, to remind everybody how to find DiverCity Podcast, and links to all the research could be found on our website, divercitypodcast.com.

Don’t forget, that’s DiverCity with a C, not with an S. That’s where you can find all our episodes, and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Do also sign up for our newsletter, called D, E and I That’s Caught Our Eye, because that’s where we share news stories and updates, so you could stay right on top of what’s current.

Do follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and DiverCity Podcast is available on Bright Talk and all good podcast channels. And by the way, we’d really love a rating, because it does all help extend the conversation to even more people.

I have to say, I am loving this conversation, as I return to Sam and to Rachel. I wondered if I could come into this conversation about what the future may hold, and Sam, can I bring you in at this point?

If we don’t accommodate the changes that we’ve talked about, and the narrative, and the sense of belonging and the identity, and listening to what the workforce really needs, I wonder what the future may look like if we don’t pay attention to the menopause? Love your thoughts on that.

Sam: You alluded to this earlier. I’m a board member of Innocent, We employ 800 people, 400 of which are women, average age 35, okay? When I was experiencing my perimenopause, I looked at our workforce and thought, “Okay, if everybody’s approaching this period,” and as Rachel says, not everyone has a bad experience, “but if everyone’s going to approach this roughly the same time, we might be in for a bit of a perfect storm here.”

We talk about this a lot in our Women’s Affinity Group, and the conversation is rich, and it’s fantastic. I do encourage other businesses to think about this. But I think if we don’t, I think a few  things are going to happen. I think, as an industry, as businesses, we will no longer be able to attract, retain, develop this wonderful talent that is incredibly rich in experience, and has so much to give, as we approach our forties and fifties. That, I think, is a real concern.

We know through a recent government report that over 25% of women in this midlife period are leaving their roles, for a whole host of reasons. But a lot can be attributed to the lack of support as they go through the perimenopause and menopause. I really do think that businesses are going to struggle, as I say, to attract and retain this fantastic important community of talent.

Not only is that a travesty for their business, and what they are trying to achieve, but it will be, from a commercial perspective, quite damning, because we all know how much time and resource is required to find great talent, and to retain great talent. I think there’s a lot of things mixed up here, that could be quite catastrophic, if we don’t stop and think about this very important audience.

Julia: As we know, diversity only ever enhances corporate performance.

Sam: Absolutely.

Julia: Why not pay attention to this incredibly important group? I loved your comments earlier, Rachel, about the upgrade. Actually, you’re supporting a wealth of talent that’s got even greater potential for you, as well.

Then I’m hearing some rumblings in the industry, about more and more men, actually, are keen to understand, particularly if they have women of a certain age in their lives, keen to understand more about the menopause, as well. I wondered whether this brings in a conversation about male allies.

Rachel, I’d love to hear your thoughts about, obviously, that male allies are very powerful. But how are you seeing that discussion change and grow?

Rachel: I think men want to know more information, because there’s a reason why relationships broke down in midlife. And it’s not just because the women are suffering, but the women have less of a bulls*t ratio. They’re not prepared to take it anymore, so they walk away from relationships.

Whereas, actually, if there was more understanding from their heterosexual partner, then it might not end in relationship breakdown. I think men, they’re keen to have that knowledge.

Most of them don’t know anymore about it, or even less than women do, and women know shockingly little about what’s going on. Thankfully, that is beginning to change. It’s just about getting the balance right.

I think, with the men, there’s still often a tendency to make jokes, and it doesn’t go down very well. Don’t make jokes about women having hot flushes, or not being able to remember things, because that’s just going to pick away at the lack of confidence.

There is a peak in imposter syndrome for women, and guess what? It’s around menopause. I think, trying to build the women up, and trying to understand, but also, just reading the room, being sensitive to what is actually going on, and not making assumptions, I think that’s an important thing. I think men can have that role, but it’s not an easy line to tread.

Julia: Wise words, very wise words. I think that what I love about this whole conversation is it’s very considered, it’s very considerate, but it’s also very specific, in terms of what to pay attention to, and also to know where the lines are, in many ways.

I can’t believe our time passes on these podcasts, and it’s with some regret, actually. Because I feel like we could talk for quite a long time about this, and I suspect it won’t be the last conversation we have about it. However, I would like to ask you the same question as I ask all our guests, which is as we are navigating these extraordinary times, and arguably quite challenging pathways ahead, there is a risk that the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion could drop down the corporate agenda.

I would love to hear your compelling reasons why it must remain high. Rachel, I’m coming to you first. See us out of the show with your compelling reason why it must remain high.

Rachel: Well, as you’ve already said, the most diverse organisations are the most successful organisations. That’s what we need to hold onto. And also, in terms of age and women, it’s such an amazing resource, that everybody is just going to shoot themselves in the foot if they ignore those people, and do not keep them on board, and on side.

There’s a reason, I think, why the world has got into a bit of a mess. And I personally think there’s a bit too much male energy in it. If we can get more female energy, and older female energy into the big affairs of the world, I think organisations will do well, communities will do well, families will do well, the whole lot. That’s why I think diversity and inclusion has to absolutely stay at the top of everybody’s agenda.

Julia: If that’s not a compelling reason, I don’t know what is. Sam Simister, I’m coming to you for the same question. Tell us why this must remain high.

Sam: For all the reasons that Rachel has said, I’m not going to repeat them. You put it beautifully, Rachel, I completely agree. I think I’d just like to add, there are some fantastic organisations out there, that are bringing together businesses such as Lead, which is a pan-European business for all sectors, to really focus on this issue, and to help businesses learn from one another.

Because some businesses are doing some things incredibly well, and through collaboration and sharing, and best practise, then, I think that gives those companies that are struggling some insight and inspiration as to what more they can do. Just to really add, and build on Rachel’s great points, I would encourage businesses to look out for those networks, where there’s some great stuff going on, if they’re a bit stuck. Because there’s some really good inspiration out there, as to how we can keep D&I, and the right approach to this, at the top of the agenda, in an effective way.

Julia: Wonderful. Sam Simister, from Gen M and thank you so much for being with us today.

Sam: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Julia: And Rachel Lancaster, from Magnificent Midlife, been great to have your company. Thank you.

Rachel: It’s been wonderful. Thank you.

Julia: And to everybody, I hope you’ve enjoyed the conversation as much as I have. It’s been fascinating, as I said, it won’t be the last conversation we have about the menopause, for sure.

I’m always grateful to everybody who listens in, from around the world. Thank you. I’ve been Julia Streets. Tune in again soon for another episode.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts, on behalf of Julia Street Productions. You can find out more about the guests from this week’s show on our website. That’s www.divercitypodcast.com. That’s diversity with a C, and not an S.

 

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