I’m glad menopause leave has been rejected – women are more than the sum of our hormones

I have the distinct feeling that what I’m about to say won’t make me very popular in some quarters. Why? Because it’s about menopause legislation and, given that 52 per cent of the population give or take will go through menopause, a lot of those people who go through menopause (Sorry! Just joking, I mean women) have very strong opinions on the subject.

Before I begin, I should like to state for the record that I do realise some women have the most terrible time.

I had a moderately terrible time, arguably I’m still having a slightly terrible time even though I ditched the useless HRT and maxed out on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (know what I mean, ladies?). But this isn’t about me.

It’s not about any one woman. It’s about a principle. And to my mind that principle is this: empowerment, not exceptionalism.

That’s why I back the decision not to make menopause a protected characteristic, like age, disability and race under the Equality Act.

Campaigners had called for changes in discrimination laws and the introduction of “menopause leave” to “protect the rights of women” experiencing symptoms and stop “vast numbers” of them being pushed out of the workplace. The Government has rejected the proposals and I think it was the correct conclusion.

It would be a bit of a stretch to claim I “applaud” this move – and the Government claim that such legislation might “inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, for example… towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions” is just plain stupid – but I genuinely believe that legislation isn’t the answer to every problem and the balm for every ill. Sometimes it’s little more than a hastily applied sticking plaster hiding the issue when what’s needed is the fresh air of greater public discourse and the disinfectant of sunlight.

More – much more – needs to be done to support British women during menopause but I would respectfully suggest that’s one for the NHS, not the spotty regional office manager.

Indeed, the Government’s decision was reported on the same day that a new poll found healthcare for women in the UK is as bad as Kazakhstan and worse than that provided in China. Britain ranked lower than the US, Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany in the 2021 Hologic Global Women’s Health Index. There’s an indictment to add to all our other NHS woes.

That is where substantive change needs to take place to keep midlife women healthy in body and mind.

In a labour shortage, keeping skilled women in the workplace ought to be a priority for any company. But I don’t feel that the HR department mill-stoning women with a “menopausal” label is progress, especially not at the stage when a great many of us, freed from childcare burdens, are bursting with creativity, ready for a new challenge, the next promotion.

According to a report last year by management consultants PwC, women aged between 50 – 64 are the fastest growing workforce demographic in the UK. A total of 67.5 percent of women aged between 50 – 64 are in employment, amounting to almost 4.5 million employees.

“Women affected by the menopause are often at the peak of their skills, experience and therefore contribution to the company,” the report observed. “Menopause usually occurs between ages 45 and 55 which is also the age bracket during which women are most likely to move into top leadership positions.”

Age, disability and sex discrimination legislation already exists to protect workers. Some firms already offer menopause leave, such as City Hall in London, the Bank of Ireland, consulting firm Ipsos and WW (formerly WeightWatchers).

Over 600 UK employers have also signed the “Menopause Workplace Pledge” in 2022, which encourages menopause-friendly policies, education and internal campaigns. A greater push is needed, but good employers retain the best employees.

The PwC report noted that a lack of awareness and support around the menopause can have far-reaching implications for any business.

“Aside from the health and wellbeing considerations, a failure to address issues surrounding menopause could negatively impact productivity, contribute to retention issues, lessen gender-diversity at executive levels and contribute to a higher gender pay gap,” its authors concluded. “The menopause should therefore be viewed as a key workplace issue.”

Women are more than the sum of our hormones. We always have been. We variously want to lean in. Lean out. Break free.

I belong to a generation of girls and young women who were told to strive, taught to strive. It wasn’t without its sacrifices but we pushed through a fair few glass ceilings and cracked a few more so other younger women could carry the baton onwards and upwards.

Despite the everyday sexism. The bantz about moodiness and periods. The crass assumptions that pregnancy would wither our brain capacity and nursing would transform us into placid milch cows.

It wasn’t easy. But we got through; the tiny babies, the manic toddlers, the stroppy teens. The pressure to finish on time has made us more efficient during working hours.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” quoth Margaret Thatcher.

Those of us still in the workplace have seen it evolve; misogynistic bantz is now a disciplinary matter. Representation is broader. Woe betide the man who sniggers at that bottle of breast milk in the fridge.

More joined-up thinking on menopause is needed. But changing the law would have passed the buck onto employers when what women need is better healthcare and advice from GPs who routinely dismiss women even though their lives are being upended, on the grounds that “it’s a natural process”.

By that logic, so is dying of cancer.

Our most vocal menopause campaigner, Davina McCall has spoken of her anguish at “frightening” menopause-related memory loss.

“I thought I was going to have to give up my job – and I love my job,” she said. “I thought I was disappearing and my world was getting smaller and smaller. I felt very lonely and isolated.”

Davina McCall has made documentaries about the menopause - Nick England/Getty Images
Davina McCall has made documentaries about the menopause - Nick England/Getty Images

In a Channel 4 survey published last October, of the 4, 014 women polled, 14 per cent reduced their work hours due to having menopause symptoms. It also found 52 per cent of women lost their confidence at work due to the menopause, while 84 per cent felt there was no one they could turn to in their workplace to help with their issue.

That situation certainly needs to be addressed, immediately. But it’s interesting to note that McCall, now 55, has been focussing her efforts not on changing the law but on making HRT more widely available and ensuring women have access to menopause care.

Last year’s supply crisis saw major shortages of some HRT products, which are used by approximately one million women in the UK.

McCall has been open about the benefits of HRT, saying it felt like she was “being reborn” and that “I'd got myself back”. 
It’s the stuff of every woman’s dreams but given the patchiest of provision, for too many it shockingly remains just that; a dream.

“I think this is going to be my life’s work now,” she told one tabloid. “It’s frustrating, but it feels like we’ve gone a long way in the last year in terms of public knowledge and willingness to do something about it.”

Now we need to know the Government is prepared to step up and give menopausal women what they need: not pity or special treatment but the decent healthcare we deserve. I’m not sure even the most enlightened regional manager could help with that.

Additional reporting by Abigail Buchanan