My menopausal start-up
A view from Suzie Bidlake

My menopausal start-up

Menopause needs a dyslexic make-over. The ad industry can help

“No! Don’t call it that!” she shrieked. The woman interviewing me about my new business physically recoiled in horror.

It wasn’t my company name she’d reacted to so forcefully but the way I’d described it. “It’s my menopausal start-up,” I’d told her breezily. 

For me, that meant the start of something new at a time of life (57) when all my life experience and new-found sense of freedom could be brought to bear.

For her – and for most people – “menopausal” was and is a dirty word. Something that diminished, devalued and disabused what I was doing. Why on earth would I want to link my shiny new venture with such a downright negative?

I knew what she meant. When women hit 50, once the party poppers lie listless and the balloons are withered, there’s a particularly pernicious birthday message that society sends us: “You’re on the way out now, girl”. 

It’s the beginning of the end, the start of the decline into dried-up husks of our former selves as our useful role in society as workers, mothers and lovers ebbs away.

We’re called menopausal. But we dare not say so. Such is our fear of being even more quickly written off. 

Bold, admirable women like Melissa Robertson, the Dark Horses chief executive, who laid plain her own struggles with the physical and emotional onslaught of the menopause in Campaign recently, are helping to chip away at the culture of shame that surrounds this time of life. We need more of this brilliant stuff; more conversation, more understanding and more acceptance. 

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go faster and ignite not just acceptance and understanding but admiration around the term “menopausal woman”? And wouldn’t it be justified? Wouldn’t it just.

Individual companies can play their part but there’s a bigger societal issue here – and the ad industry can, if it chooses, step up. Step up to change perceptions of “menopausal woman” and so change the lived experience of a third of the female population. A huge swathe of household-budget-holding consumers.

I’ve worked as a business journalist for 35 years and it’s still my day job (my new venture – an online store selling Indian hand-crafted gifts and home accessories – is my life outside work).

Today, I’m surrounded by colleagues half my age who laugh, knowingly, if I accidentally join a Zoom call on mute. I notice that’s not the reaction if one of them does the same. It’s not at all malicious or intentional but it is casually undermining. A reflection of society’s view of women in the menopausal stage of life.

For some, like Janice Beard, it’s too much to bear. Constant “don’t worry Janice, I’ll explain it to you later” comments from her 30-year-old male line manager, in front of colleagues, eventually led her to leave the retail banking job she loved after 42 years. A new report from Vodafone has found that up to one third of women who have suffered menopausal symptoms say they opted to hide them in the workplace.

So many of us have no idea where we are on the menopausal journey which can last a couple of decades and our symptoms vary widely. Personally, I’ve been through hormone replacement therapy gel, patches and pills. Even after discovering a (thankfully benign) breast lump and determining to come off HRT, I was offered anti-depressants as a replacement. I’m now on herbal supplements and have no idea whether I could cope without them or not. 

But, symptoms of hormonal decline or not, and regardless of whether we have had children or not, we women all go through this period of life when our outlook fundamentally changes. 

Women in this age bracket, at this menopausal stage of life, have huge amounts to offer society. We bring buckets of experience of juggling demands (work, home, parenting, caring for parents), heaps of life events to draw upon (in my case, the death of my father, joining a large new family, childbirth, divorce, redundancy, being with loved-ones as they died, my partner’s life-threatening illness) and, lastly, a new perspective. We’re much less fussed by what used to bother us and much more focused on what we really want. All attributes that make us brilliant at work, at play – at life. As we age, we become more, not less. 

But “menopausal woman” denotes none of this. My recent search in an online picture library threw up only images of women in misery.

Menopausal is a label that blanket-covers a whole cohort of 45-plus women, whether suffering menopausal symptoms or not. One third of the UK’s female population are currently menopausal or perimenopausal (the period leading up to the menopause), according to the Local Government Association. And, notes Professor Jo Brewis, co-author of the Government Equalities Office Report Menopause transition: effects on women’s economic participation, menopausal women make up the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce. 

It’s a blanket labelling that couldn’t be less helpful. Until we change the prism through which society views us.

My son is dyslexic and therefore labelled. But this is a label that I’ve been delighted to witness change. Where once it was seen as shameful and something to be hidden, dyslexia is now rightly regarded as a gift because dyslexics look at the world differently from neurotypical people.

Women in the menopausal lifestage approach the world differently too.

Just so, “menopausal lifestage” needs a dyslexia-style make-over, a re-framing by society to something affirmative and aspirational rather than shameful, embarrassing and pitiful. 

Celebrities such as Davina McCall (C4’s Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and The Menopause) and Meg Matthews (The New Hot) are doing much good in bringing the discussion of menopausal symptoms out into the open. They, and others, are helping to chip away at the culture of shame that surrounds this time of life. Shame disappears when light is shone upon it.

But what we certainly don’t need is for shame to be replaced by pity – and more of an excuse to write us off.

So now we need to skip to the next step – and quickly. To start acknowledging the power and value of women in the menopausal lifestage and to flick the switch in how they – we – are perceived, from negative to positive.

Far from the beginning of the end, this time of change can be the start of something big.

My new business is called Suzie Bidlake. But I’m proud to also call it my menopausal start-up.

Suzie Bidlake is commercial editor at Campaign and founder of her eponymous retail business