Masculinity and the menopause

Today, I am thinking about the menopause and the role masculinities play for a couple of reasons. Colleagues from UCU are launching a menopause cafe at Northumbria University aligned to world menopause awareness day (October 18th) and I am keen to involve myself, as a male ally, in this important initiative. Secondly, the woman’s hour featured section on the menopause this week, specifically relating to sex drive and also postpartum continence. Women’s health is a marginalised topic in the workplace from my experiences (I have previously talked about pregnancy as a major challenge for women). It feels like a great taboo to even mention periods or menopausal symptoms, never mind incontinence. The reality is that many people experience varying degrees of discomfort and, for some, it can be extremely debilitating. I believe challenging some of the prevailing workplace masculinity cultures can help to deconstruct these taboos and normalise adult conversations that acknowledge women’s health.

One of the classic flaws of hegemonic masculine ideals is the assumption the ‘real men’ don’t discuss their feelings, instead we are encouraged to talk about sport, or music or business prowess or sexual conquests. Many men do not conform to many of these topics of conversation, but the avoidance of discussing health is, in my view, synonymous to men’s avoidance of appearing weak (the ultimate fear for any man). A weak man is unattractive, disrespected and marginalised in society. It should come as no surprise that men do everything they can to hide their weaknesses and encourage others to do the same by promoting less emotionally involved conversation. Talking about your family is OK (you might construct your identity as breadwinner/provider as symbolic of your strength), but talking about your insecurities as a parent is taboo. I believe this weakness rule extends to conversations about women’s health.

Historically, the modern office has been the domain of privileged men, and women have played a supporting role. Although women are finally achieving greater recognition in leadership roles (though nowhere near enough…) progress is far slower when it comes to creating a different culture that represents the reality of men and women’s lives. The fact that men also experience significant health problems (such as faecal incontinence) as they get older is something I had not event thought about properly until it was mentioned on the woman’s hour this week. If men, who defined the social discourse rules of workplaces (still in place), cannot discuss their own health for fear of marginalisation, it is a sad consequence that women who are still navigating a hyper masculine workplace, especially those who go through childbirth, are at greater risk of marginalisation if they disclose any hint of health issues that could affect their performance.

For men, the ‘andropause’ is a separate term for some men’s issues, typically resulting from increasing stress, anxiety and lifestyle choices. It is fair to say that men’s symptoms are not directly resultant from physical changes, rather a consequence of workplace seniority, responsibilities and expectations relative to the hegemonic ideal. That men experience a cluster of negative symptoms while they age is indicative of an ideal against which we all measure ourselves unfairly. It is true that men are likely to develop prostate problems and decreased sex drive, but the severity of this transition is incomparable to the often intense shifts in women’s health. This is not to diminish men’s health in any way, but simply to illustrate that, if men are not comfortable discussing their own feelings and mental health to the extent that they bring physical health issues upon themselves, then it is clearly a much more difficult task to change the culture for women’s health too!

I am delighted to have the opportunity to attend the forthcoming menopause cafe on October 30th. I think modern masculinities need to be part of these conversations and we need to take ownership of people’s health issues, not perpetuate spurious gender separations. It is only though discourse where these topics can be openly discussed without fear of judgement that our workplace cultures can really shift. Mature conversations about women and men’s health (physical and mental) can open up rational decisions in the workplace. If women colleagues are experiencing menopausal symptoms, perhaps there are tasks they will feel more comfortable with on certain days. Similarly, if men have prostate problems, perhaps they require a different working space to ease certain symptoms. We need to work together to change our expectations of each other, away from the cyborg ‘ideal worker’ whose health has no bearing on their performance. Only acknowledging and responding to our collective health can we enable people to take responsibility for their daily working lives.

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