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Watch: Countess of Wessex backs campaign
The very idea of a royal openly discussing the menopause would once have been unthinkable. But Sophie Wessex, 56, is a very modern royal - and in a climate increasingly attuned to the problems faced by midlife women, she has made it her business to speak out.
This week, the countess joined the launch of the Menopause Workplace Pledge by health charity Wellbeing of Women, which is calling on all employers to sign up and support women going through the menopause.
An estimated 900,000 women in the UK have quit their jobs due to the menopause, with research showing many struggle to manage their symptoms at work.
The roundtable discussion took place with Wellbeing of Women chair Professor Dame Lesley Regan and TV presenter Gabby Logan among others.
“To think that women are having to leave the workplace because of (the menopause) is just tragic,” the countess said.
“We are fabulous in our 40s, and we are even more fabulous in our 50s, 60s and 70s, and we need to celebrate that and keep those opportunities going for women.
“Together, we can support the thousands of women out there who form the backbone of our workforce.
“We cannot let anybody leave that workforce unfulfilled and also feeling that they have got to slope off into the shadows. It’s not right and we’ve got to be able to change that.”
Sophie, who is patron of Wellbeing of Women, opened up about her own experience of the menopause earlier this year – the first member of the royal family to do so publicly.
The countess described hot flushes, memory loss and brain fog, losing her train of thought on royal engagements and feeling as if somebody had 'taken her brain out'.
Three in four women will experience menopause symptoms and one in four will have severe symptoms, such as anxiety, brain fog, poor concentration, fatigue, hot flushes and irregular and heavy bleeding, research has shown.
Recently, a wider public conversation has opened up, with documentaries and books on the menopause by high profile women including Davina McCall, Comedian Jenny Eclair, Meg Mathews, and the bestselling Cracking the Menopause by Mariella Frostrup and journalist Alice Smellie.
At the event, Labour MP Carolyn Harris, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Menopause described her own experience, saying she went from “belting out Hey Big Spender on the karaoke to being in a pink anorak with the hood up for six months thinking I was having a nervous breakdown”.
She said she spent 11 years on antidepressants before starting to wean herself off after beginning HRT recently.
“The menopause is a fact of life. We have got to stop pretending it will go away if we don’t talk about it,” she added.
Watch: Best treatments for menopause
When Sophie became patron in May, she spoke openly about her own struggles with menopause, saying: “You know in the middle of a presentation when you suddenly can’t remember what you were talking about, try being on an engagement when that happens – your words just go.
“And you’re standing there and going, ‘Hang on, I thought I was a reasonably intelligent person, what has just happened to me?’
“It’s like somebody’s just gone and taken your brain out for however long before they pop it back in again and you try and pick up the pieces and carry on.”
There are approximately 13 million women in the workplace over the age of 40, but one in four has considered leaving their jobs when reaching the menopause, Sophie was told.
“Really we should be celebrating the fact that we don’t have to have periods any more," she said. "It should be a liberation, but it feels like a shackle. It’s described as something incredibly negative.
“Yes, it’s an admittance of the fact that we’re getting a bit older, we’re not as young as we were before, we’re not being, you know, ‘productive’, we are past that stage, and it’s quite a moment to admit it.”
The countess also spoke about the “superficial” media pressure on women to appear skinny, beautiful and youthful.
“We’ve got to be fit, we’ve got to be clever, we’ve got to be looking skinny, we’ve got to be looking beautiful, we’ve got look 25 years old for the rest of our lives,” she said.
“But unfortunately our bodies are going, ‘Well, you can do all of that on the outside...but on the inside things are a little different. The inside hasn’t been listening to social media, it’s just gonna happen.”
The countess, mother to 17-year-old Lady Louise Windsor and 13-year-old Viscount Severn, called for better education of girls, saying: “How much are young girls actually told at the beginning? Because I don’t remember having these lessons at all.
“When we’re told that we’re going to begin our periods, are we told that they’re going to end as well?”
In conversation with Wellbeing of Women chief Professor Dame Lesley Regan, Sophie called for any taboo in talking about periods and the menopause to be broken.
“We all talk about having babies, but nobody talks about periods, nobody talks about the menopause, why not?” she said. “It’s something that happens to us 12 times a year, it’s something that’s incredibly normal but it’s something that is hidden and I think it’s time to say enough, we need to bring this out on to the table and say let’s talk about this.”
The countess described hormones as “incredibly strong little critters” and urged women to seek “help and talk to everybody and be informed, because that will help you manage your circumstances”.
“It’s not only about dialogue with women and young girls, it’s men as well", said Sophie. "This is a conversation that has to be opened up to everybody. Even if they don’t want to listen – we just have to get louder.”
Watch: Penny Lancaster breaks down in tears as she talks about menopause on Loose Women
Additional reporting by PA