In June, the Chancery Bar Association ran a ground-breaking webinar focusing on the menopause, the silence surrounding this life event – affecting half the population – and its implications for the Bar. We pulled no punches. It was a very honest conversation about our personal experiences and the way perimenopausal symptoms had impacted our working lives, practice management, routes to silk and confidence to perform roles of increasing seniority. Our stories showed a diversity of experience; for Brie, the struggle to manage physical symptoms from her late 40s into her late 50s; for Lyndsey, the serious cognitive symptoms suffered during early menopause diagnosed when she was 37.

The audience included barristers, practice managers, clerks and support staff along with solicitors and judges from around the country. Many more have since watched the recording. The enthusiasm and volume of engagement online was extraordinary and telling. The reaction confirmed we had shone a light on something important that should not remain in the shadows.

Lynda Bailey from Talking Menopause set the record straight on the much-misunderstood facts of the menopause. Many men attended and were genuinely grateful for factual, practical information. Getting a sense of how supportive so many of our male colleagues would be if the impact of the menopause was not shrouded in silence and taboos was reassuring. Having the conversation in a public, professional forum and experiencing the instant recognition and relief as other women identified so strongly with the issues, was powerful. There was undoubtedly great value simply in sharing experiences. However, that is not enough.

The menopause impacts 50% of the population: most women and some trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people.* It impacts professional women at key points mid-career. For many the onset of menopause coincides with increased caring responsibilities. Growing professional pressures and escalating emotional demands combined with hormonal change can be too much. Any serious attempt to tackle progression and retention of women at the Bar must address this reality. If the Bar is to be a truly inclusive profession benefitting from the full potential of female talent, supporting women to manage menopause is an obvious step. In that context, highlighting information and developing organisational support are necessary elements of an essential profession-wide re-think. These elements were brilliantly researched and presented at the webinar by younger women: Louise Corfield (author of ‘Menopause at the Bar’ in Counsel October 2020, Yasmin Yasseri and Faith Julian. With no direct experience of symptoms themselves, they brought an appreciation of the importance of normalising and managing the menopause for the retention and progression of women at the Bar.

One of the most myth-laden and poorly understood of life events – even by some of those experiencing it and their doctors – perimenopause is the period when a woman might experience symptoms leading up to the cessation of menstruation. There can be serious physical or mental (or both) health changes for women. ‘Menopause’ is frequently used as shorthand to cover three distinct phases (perimenopause, menopause and post-menopause). Everyone’s ‘menopause’ is different, as their balance of hormones changes. Some have a very short transition, for others it may take years (up to around 12).

Similarly, the number and range of symptoms experienced varies greatly. Around 80-90% of women experience perimenopausal symptoms, for some merely inconvenient, for others bothersome and uncomfortable. For around 25% of women, the impact of their symptoms is severe: disruptive, isolating, impacting seriously on daily life and health. Physical symptoms – including hot flushes, fatigue, night sweats, insomnia, migraine, heart palpitations – can increase self-consciousness and impair confidence in performing demanding professional roles. Cognitive or psychological symptoms (eg memory loss, anxiety, lack of confidence and self-esteem, low moods, heightened emotions, a decrease in spatial awareness) often catch women unawares. Some are wrongly prescribed antidepressants. Knowing the true cause can be a huge relief for women who are worried, as Lyndsey was, that they have incipient dementia or a mental health illness.

For Brie there were migraines, painful vaginal dryness, constantly disturbed sleep and consistent overheating and sweats. The associated self-consciousness and undermining of confidence were particularly challenging in court. Combined with a dramatic decrease in attention span, a loss of capability for logistics and gained capacity for anxiety, this made her someone she did not know. For Lyndsey, before finding relief through HRT, forgetting clients’ names, grasping for previously ready vocabulary or ideas and finding only a frightening void, losing track of thoughts mid-sentence had led to anxiety, depression and serious self-doubt.

Despite recent, more positive, presentations of menopause in the media, it is still very much a taboo subject in workplaces. The symptoms are too often poorly recognised, undervalued and not taken seriously. Outdated, gender- and age-related assumptions persist. References are often couched within a joke. Ignorance of facts and cultural discomfort with anything related to menstruation or ‘women’s bits’ feed the fear of negative or dismissive responses, or being undermined or defined by what is in fact a normal life event for women, not an illness or a medical condition (apart from a few exceptions eg medically induced menopause following cancer treatment). The very real fear ‘it’s simply another stick to beat women with’, feeds a belief it is preferable for women to soldier on in silence. Some senior successful women may feel, ‘I didn’t make a fuss, why should they do so now?’ The Bar’s adversarial context, intellectually demanding content and performative features encourage the misapprehension that discussing the impact of menopause or the need to manage its impact renders you less competent, weak or less professional in the eyes of others.

To shift the taboo, we need to normalise discussion of menopause in the same way we have begun to break down barriers and foster inclusion around mental health. The rationale for taking this seriously is compelling. The working lives of over a third of barristers and staff would be enhanced by creating menopause-friendly workplaces. Retention would improve. Providing support to manage this crucial stage of women’s working lives can be pivotal in facilitating continued successful careers and ensuring chambers attracts and retains valuable, experienced, skilled talent. Menopause is an important gender- and age-equality issue, linked to other key workplace issues about women’s economic participation such as the gender earnings gap. Its management makes business sense for every chambers where women work.

What would make a difference? How does the Bar create an environment where everyone can be at their best? Everyone (but especially practice managers, case leaders, senior staff and those on committees) understanding some basic facts about menopause and being ready to support those wrestling with its impact, rather than putting them off with a misinformed response, would be transformative. This should simply be part of the support we offer each other in our professional lives.

Reasonable adjustments can be embedded in policy to help with physical symptoms (eg desk fans, air conditioning, flexible working). Cognitive symptoms (and some physical, eg migraines or sleeplessness) require a more nuanced response. Here, even just talking about menopause in an informed, matter-of-fact way can make a world of difference to a woman’s ability to achieve her full potential. Possible further actions include: a wellbeing policy including menopause recognition; training practice managers in a positive approach, taking on board any health issues; signposting sources of support; using external speakers to open up conversations; making menopause support a key strategy to attract, retain and develop female talent; mentoring schemes for women to support others experiencing the menopause.

None of this means making assumptions or direct enquiries about an individual’s circumstances or support required. It should not be assumed that every woman wants to talk about it or is experiencing detrimental symptoms by a certain age. Each individual is usually best placed to recognise what might help them. It is having a culture that encourages open conversations, signals support and flexibility that will really make a long-term difference. People experiencing menopausal symptoms require the same understanding as anyone experiencing a significant life event or an ongoing health condition. With steps like those indicated here the Bar will show that it recognises this and can easily provide adjustments and support where it is needed. This will be for the benefit of the Bar itself and our clients. 

* This article, which will appear in the October 2021 issue of Counsel, focuses predominantly on women. The impact of menopause for trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people has added complexity. The menopause can be experienced at that stage of their lives by trans masculine and non-binary identified people whose female characteristics persist at that stage of their lives and transwomen may also experience symptoms. Similar support and flexibility in the workplace and an appreciation that additional complexity may arise is needed.

Menopause & the Bar, The Chancery Bar Association webinar, can be viewed here.

World Menopause Day is held every year on 18 October to raise awareness. The theme for 2021 is bone health.

More information about symptoms can be found at:; British Menopause Society;

The Bar Council has submitted evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry into discrimination faced by menopausal people in the workplace.

A 2019 CIPD/BUPA survey found that three in five menopausal women were negatively affected at work and almost 900,000 left their jobs ‘at the peak of their experience’.