how this Boeing engineer managed her menopause in the workplace

Born and raised in the macho culture of Venezuela, educated entirely in a conservative Catholic school system, and now often the only woman in the room at Boeing, engineer LL is used to keeping anything related to “women’s stuff” on the down-low, pardon the expression.

But keeping frequent, intense hot flashes to yourself isn’t easy. And when you couple those hot flashes with cancer treatment, keeping it quiet can become a real burden. This is LL’s story of managing her health—and her hot flashes—while keeping her cool.

At age 52, LL hadn’t yet gone through menopause. She’d started having periods late (age 17); now it appeared she’d be delayed on the other end as well.

Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer –
estrogen-positive breast cancer, the kind that grows
faster in the presence of estrogen.

As part of her treatment, the doctor prescribed medication that would stop estrogen production and force menopause. But her body refused to cooperate. It took six years before she had her first hot flash. “The doctor kept asking, ‘Have you had a hot flash yet?’ And when I said no, not yet, he was frustrated. But it’s not my fault; I am not doing it on purpose!”

When it finally happened, LL, a planner, started figuring out how to handle it in the mostly male environment of Boeing. “But how do you plan for something that can happen any time of the day, any number of times, without warning?” An engineer, she naturally started looking for patterns, but discovered only that her hot flashes last 3 to 5 minutes, which wasn’t a lot of help in figuring out how to avoid “sharing” her experience.

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“I was raised by French Catholic nuns in Venezuela,” LL says, laughing. “I was taught you have to behave like a queen outside of your house. So my husband and daughter were the only ones who knew what was happening! At home I was throwing off my clothes and bitching about how hot I was.”

“At work? I’m the Queen of France, I’m Marie Antoinette. The Queen of France would not show she has hot flashes.”

Keeping hot flashes under wraps—when being “under wraps” is the last thing she wants—is a challenge.

“I’m so relieved when someone says, ‘Is it hot in here?’ It’s permission to throw off my jacket—Boeing has these wonderful, cozy, reflective, fleece jackets that we must use because we work in a giant, chilly hangar and transit across risky tarmac. Besides, it is always cold in the Pacific Northwest, so fleece is key! But fleece doesn’t absorb water, so you’re slick like a seal under there. When you’re with women, you can say, ‘Oh ***, I am having a hot flash.’ But with all those guys, no, I am not going to say that. I just hope someone else complains about the heat so I can agree!”

Do they know?

"Do they know I'm having a hot flash?
Oh, no. I was very well trained to be the Queen of France."

Why hide it? Every woman who lives long enough goes through menopause, and some 80% of those will have hot flashes. Why is it such a big secret?

“Everything that happens to a woman is perceived as a weakness. It’s a male culture, here in the US and in Venezuela. You can see it, she’s a b***h, but he has balls, you know? Things that happen to women, physically, are a detriment. So we hide it, no matter what.

“I sit what we call ‘ship-side’ with all these guys, next to the airplanes. Mechanics, VPs, execs, directors, managers, engineers, everybody is there. And 90, 95% are men. I don’t let on because I don’t want to answer their questions—not the ones they ask, and not the ones in their eyes that they don’t ask. I’m a very private person about everything, not just this. And besides, I don’t want to be responsible for educating them.

“But the problem of silence is it doesn’t do a damn thing about ignorance.

“I had other issues as well—a period that lasted an entire month, for example. When you don’t know anything, you don’t even know to ask. That can be dangerous. But my only doctor is my oncologist, so when I visit him, I only talk about the annual routine that a cancer survivor has to follow to make sure things are in check, hence, I don’t bother much to talk about menopausal issues. I don’t talk at work. I don’t talk about it either with other women outside of work. So much secrecy, taboo, stigma when we could all be sharing and be smarter. And safer.”

"I'm happy Gennev is doing this work,
I'm happy you asked me to share my story.
Together we can finally be chipping away at the ignorance."

LL has always been a private person and doesn’t think she’d be shouting her hot flashes from the rooftops, even if it were socially acceptable to do so. But she does believe women shouldn’t have to hide the realities of their biology. A few years ago, during a meeting, someone brought up the TV show The View. The only other woman in the room, a young woman, dismissed it as “a show run by a bunch of menopausal women.” The 12 men in the room exploded in laughter.

“What did I hear? I heard, ‘The View? A show run by a bunch of decrepit, old women…’. I also heard disdain in the Millennial’s tone. I was 51-52 at the time, and not that I was menopausal, as you know my story, but I could have very well been. I didn’t say anything, but now I think I should have.” She sighs. “Like everything, you just cope,” she says. “But maybe it’s better if we work together to make it easier for the world.”

Making it easier, LL says, means helping women be comfortable with it as much as men. “I was taught to be very private in these matters, but I remember being on a camping trip with an extremely open friend. We were in our 20s (so this was 40 years ago!) and she had her period. At one point she stood up and shouted, ‘I am going into the woods to change my Tampax.’ I was so shocked, but the guys we were with laughed and brushed it off. So I wonder, is the embarrassment more in our heads than in the men’s?”

Ultimately, our workplaces aren’t necessarily hostile to women dealing with menopause, they’re often just casually careless. As LL says, when those in charge don’t experience it, and those who do keep it quiet, discussions don’t happen…and neither does change.

“I may start to challenge the silence now,” she says. “Because I have a daughter. Maybe by the time she has her first hot flash, a male co-worker will bring her ice water and that will be it.”

 

Question for conversation: What can you do/are you doing at your workplace to make it easier for menopausal women? How much should workplaces do to accommodate women experiencing hormonal-change symptoms? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!