Menopause in Education - The Impact on the Teaching Profession

Sharon MacArthur portrait

Written by Sharon MacArthur

Owner of Red Handbag. She works internationally with leaders in business, helping them to develop their leadership confidence though more effective communication strategies.

According to recent government figures, three quarters of teachers are women, so why is support for those in the profession who are going through the menopause glaringly lacking?

The average age that a woman reaches menopause is 51, but symptoms can start much earlier. Women over 50 are also the fastest growing workplace demographic and many women working in education are in senior leadership positions by this stage in their careers.

While all women go through menopause, some will have a more difficult time of it because of the nature of their job role. Teaching is no exception.

How will a female teacher suffering from menopause-related anxiety cope in such a physically and mentally-demanding school, college, or university environment?

How will menopause-related fatigue and problems concentrating fare against dealing with problem pupils, excessive workloads, and strict deadlines?

What about heavy and unpredictable periods? Hot flushes? What if you can’t just up and leave the classroom if you need to?

Some women’s menopause symptoms are so severe that they either need time off from work or questions get asked about their capability to do their job.

Sadly, support from managers, even female ones, is often not forthcoming.

The result is many wonderful educators feel they have no choice but to leave their role, which is very sad, considering that getting there is the culmination of a lifetime’s work for many women in the profession.

Can the teaching profession afford to lose such highly-skilled and valuable teaching talent? That’s what could happen if schools, colleges, and universities don’t become more menopause friendly.

What can be done to better support female educators who are going through menopause?

There’s no getting away from it, teaching is a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding job at the best of times, so when it comes to menopause, we can’t just sweep it under the rug.

When I deliver menopause training to an organisation, I always make a point of saying that menopause should be business as usual. While there are some really positive signs that it’s being talked about more openly, it’s still a bit of a workplace taboo.

Women are still suffering in silence, and considering leaving their jobs, which is bad news for a profession like teaching which struggles to recruit and retain talented staff.

So what can be done?

  • The first step is talk about it. Raise awareness about menopause, bust the myths, and make it everybody’s business. The goal should be to create a menopause friendly workplace where women feel comfortable talking about how it’s affecting them and where they are able to ask for advice and support.  
  • If your workplace doesn’t have a comprehensive menopause policy, put one in place that will meet the needs of women going through menopause as well as providing straightforward guidance for their line managers.
  • Speaking of policies, make sure your sickness absence monitoring policies and arrangements don’t lead to the detrimental treatment of women who need time off for menopause-related reasons. Similarly, bear this in mind where absence and a symptom-related decline in performance can affect things like pay progression. 
  • Improve awareness of menopause across all levels of the workforce, particularly at leadership level.
  • Make reasonable adjustments to support women going through menopause.

Some reasonable adjustments your organisation could and should make:

  • Allowing toilet breaks during lessons where necessary.
  • Providing sanitary products in staff toilets.
  • Providing a place to shower and change if necessary.
  • Considering flexible working requests such as reducing hours or allowing some work to be done from home to help women manage their symptoms.
  • Providing access to cold water and allowing employees to control the temperature of their working environment if possible.

Menopause in the national curriculum

The government has added menopause as a topic to be covered on the sex education curriculum in secondary schools. Surely schools that are menopause aware and menopause friendly will be better placed to give pupils a broader and more enlightened view of the topic?

And it all needs to begin with how they support their own staff.

My mission

Raising awareness about the menopause among people and employers is all about education and making it comfortable and acceptable for people to speak about it. Menopause is not a condition to be treated and cured, it’s a normal stage of life that every woman goes through. Helping people to realise this is my mission.

My training events are aimed at educating HR professionals, managers, and workers about the menopause in a fun, engaging, and informative way.

If you’d like to find out more, contact me at sharon@missmenopause.co.uk

You can also join my Facebook group or my Facebook and Twitter campaign

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Understanding and Challenging Microaggressions

Sarah Soyei portrait

Written by Nasreen D'Agostino

Youth Education Officer, EqualiTeach

“You Don’t LOOK Like You’re Gay!”: Understanding and Challenging Microaggressions. 

Although the term ‘microaggressions’ has been around for some time, it is emerging more regularly in conversations as people increase their efforts to engage in discussions surrounding bias and privilege as a result of movements such as Black Lives Matter. Therefore, it seems more pertinent than ever to understand what this word really means and the harm that microaggressions can cause.

What is a Microaggression?

The term “microaggression” has been defined by Columbia professor Dr Sue to refer to,

brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (Sue DW, et al., (2007). 

In other words, microaggressions are remarks, questions and actions which are based on assumptions about marginalised groups. Microaggressions can be based on many aspects of someone’s identity, including gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion and race. They can be masked as compliments but are often laced with negative undertones. They can be experienced at work, school, whilst shopping, receiving health care and even at the dinner table among family members. Microaggressions can ignite feelings of alienation, hurt and frustration in those who experience them because they are so frequently and casually deployed. 

Microaggressions can be packaged in such a subtle way that they can be seen as innocuous, and dismissed as less harmful than more overt acts of prejudice. However, microaggressions are founded upon a the very same set of generalisations and assumptions that underpin overt acts. For example, saying to someone ‘you don’t look like you’re gay!’ is linked to assumptions about Lesbian, gay and bisexual people and an idea that there is only one ‘set way’ of being gay. People who express microaggressions are not necessarily doing so with bad intent, but that is not a get out of jail free card. It is important to accept that microaggressions are harmful, to interrogate underlying biases and to explore how they can influence attitudes and behaviours towards marginalised groups or individuals. 

What are some common microaggressions that people face?

Let’s look at five common microaggressions and examine the assumptions and stereotypes they perpetuate, and what could be said instead: 

1/ To a disabled person: “I think you’re so inspiring!”

🗶 This can be patronising. Disabled people do not need to be uplifted, validated or given constant reassurances.

Say nothing! Treat disabled people with the same dignity and respect you would treat non-disabled people and that is all that’s needed. 

2/ To people of colour: “Where are you actually from?”

🗶 This can seem like an innocent question but when consistently asked to people of colour it is a constant reminder that you are not accepted as being really British by your white counterparts. This can make people feel othered and as though they do not belong.

People may wish to share their heritage at a time that is appropriate and when they feel comfortable to do so. Everyone has a history and family background to share, so consider who is being asked the question and why it’s being asked. 

3/ To someone with a ‘foreign’ name: “Don’t you have a nickname, I’m never going to remember that”

🗶 This is extremely damaging, especially when directed at young people. Since so much of our identity is wrapped up in our names, having this stripped away is extremely hurtful. 

Always take the time to learn how to pronounce new names. Write names down phonetically if you are finding a name particularly hard to remember or pronounce. 

4/ To a female colleague: “You look so young!”

🗶 Not only can this undermine your colleague’s authority, but it also assumes that the most desirable characteristics a woman can have are those linked to her appearance, rather than those linked to her skills and character – in a professional setting this is particularly damaging. 

It is fine to compliment someone’s skills or ideas but refrain from commenting on looks as this is very personal.

5/ To people of colour: “You’re really articulate!”

🗶 This comment implies that most people of colour are not articulate, well-spoken or educated.

It is fine to compliment someone’s skills or ideas but commenting on the way someone speaks is unnecessary.

What are the harms of microaggressions?

Some who are sceptical of the validity of microaggressions claim that it is just people being ‘too sensitive’. However, research has shown that microaggressions, ‘although seemingly small and sometimes innocent offenses, can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipients.’ (Harris, 2015). Microaggressions can make environments seem hostile, thus affecting performance and wellbeing.

They can make people feel:

  • Frustrated
  • Drained
  • Uncomfortable
  • ‘Othered’
  • Alone
  • Angry
  • Lesser
  • Demoralised
  • Unwelcome
  • Patronised

No matter how seemingly confident or self-assured someone might be, being subjected to constant assumptions and put downs based on your identity is going to take its toll. 

How can I stop expressing microaggressions?

Since microaggressions are expressions of deeply held bias which people can often be blind to, it requires a willingness to reflect and engage to unearth them. With greater understanding and awareness of these biases, people can choose not to act on them. Here are some tips for thwarting microaggressions:

i) Be constantly aware of your biases and scrutinise them. This requires internal reflection and honest conversations with yourself which might make you feel uncomfortable at first.

ii) Stop and think before you comment on an aspect of someone’s identity. Bear in mind that microaggressions are often unnecessary comments which can be easily avoided as they serve no real purpose in conversation. 

iii) Don’t say or do things based on assumptions or bias. If you think that your comment or action may perpetuate a stereotype about a certain group of people, then do not act upon this impulse.

iv) Listen and be open if someone calls out your use of a microaggression. A commitment to unlearning microaggressions is a journey, not an overnight process, therefore demonstrating a willingness to increase your understanding and knowledge will benefit you in the long run. 

What should I do if I experience or witness microaggressions? 

  • Ask for clarification as to what was meant –Asking for clarification can help someone to go on their own journey and consider the underlying assumptions and messages in their question, comment or action. 
  • Share the impact of what has been said/done – help someone to recognise the perspective of the target and the detrimental impact of what has taken place.
  • Share your learning – we are all on a journey, speaking to someone about how you have previously got things wrong and the learning that you have undertaken can make the challenge less confrontational and support someone on their own learning journey.

The battle against microaggressions can be extremely draining for the target of incidents. Therefore, it is everybody’s duty to challenge inappropriate comments and behaviours, to reduce that burden, create environments where there are no bystanders and where everyone feels safe, included and supported. 

 

EqualiTeach offer staff training (delivered online via Zoom) on equality, diversity and inclusion, including covering topics such as microaggressions, unconscious bias and privilege. Find out more here or get in touch.

 

Bibliography:

Sue DW, et al., (2007), Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice, Abstract).

Harris, (2015), Vox.com, ‘What exactly is a microaggression?’ https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions 

Kendi, I (2019) How to be an Antiracist. London: Penguin Random House. 

Williams, T (2019) Psychology Today: Responding to Microaggressions: Safety First. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201909/responding-microaggressions-safety-first

Wood, J and Harris, F (2020) Diverse Education: How to Respond to Racial Microaggressions When They Occur. https://diverseeducation.com/article/176397/

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Diverse Educators: A Manifesto

Hannah Wilson portrait

Written by Hannah Wilson

Founder of Diverse Educators

In August 2020, at the end of the first UK lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, Bennie and I sat in the sun in my garden, down the road from the school that we had started together a few years previous and we drafted a proposal for a book. We had met through Twitter and #WomenEd 5 years before that, we were both English teachers and secondary school leaders, we are both feminists who are passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion in the school system. When I secured my headship, Bennie applied to my Deputy Headteacher, and led on our values-based  curriculum with diversity and equality embedded across it. A regular topic of conversation in the time we worked together was about the books we were reading and the books we were going to write, individually and together. We knew it would happen one day! 

 

Many of you will know that Bennie is the reason Diverse Educators was started, she came to my office one day and shared her frustration with me at having to split herself multiple ways to go to different events each weekend to explore her intersectional identity. I checked my privilege as a heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied white woman and reflected on this. We discussed the idea of hosting one event and inviting the communities from #WomenEd, #BAMEEd, #LGBTed and #DisabilityEd to come together, at the same time, under one roof to have a joined up conversation about identity. Our inaugural Diverse Educators event was in January 2018, at which #LGBTed officially launched  and Bennie closed the grassroots event with a powerful message: ‘Don’t Tuck in Your Labels’. 

 

Fast forward three years and Bennie is now a Deputy Headteacher at an all-through school where she is leading on curriculum and I am working independently as a Leadership Development Consultant, Facilitator and Coach specialising in diversity, equity and inclusion. We launched the Diverse Educators website, with the help of our partners, in the middle of a global pandemic in response to the spotlight on racial inequities, and the amplification of Black Lives Matters, triggered by George Floyd’s murder. At our first virtual event in June 2020, we were joined by over thirteen thousand people. 

 

The world has finally woken up to the need for social justice, society can no longer ignore it and the school system can no longer not prioritise the urgent need to embed the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda strategically into our schools. Bennie has recently published her first book: A Little Guide For Teachers: Diversity in Schools and we are now inviting the #DiverseEd community to lean in and contribute to our book: Diverse Educators: A Manifesto.    

 

Our book will be structured, like our website, around the Equalities Act. There will be ten chapters, one for each of the nine Protected Characteristics (Age; Disability; Gender Reassignment; Pregnancy and Maternity; Marriage and Civil Partnership; Race; Religion and Belief; Sex; Sexual Orientation) with a tenth chapter exploring intersectionality.

 

Each chapter will have a chapter editor who will work with ten contributors offering a multiplicity of perspectives on the protected characteristic being explored in the chapter. Each submission will be 1200-1500 words long. Each contributor will interweave personal and professional narrative, framed in theory, to respond to current and historic debates. The chapter editor will write the introduction to the chapter to give context and to frame the chapter’s narratives, arguments and provocations.  

 

We are committed to capturing the collective voice of our community and to showcasing the diverse lived experiences of educators. We are keen for Diverse Educators: A Manifesto to be both academic and accessible. You can review the style guide here. We intend for the book to be solutions-focused with high-quality input on practice, pedagogy, people management and policy. 

We would love to hear from you if you would like to contribute. You can submit an expression of interest here. Thank you in advance for your time, energy, experience, expertise and support in contributing to our #DiverseEd book, we are looking forward to celebrating the collective commitment and amplifying your voice. 

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