I feel it’s quite unusual for a parliamentary committee to get the door slammed in its face by the government, but maybe I’m doing my sums in old money. Last summer, the women and equalities committee made a number of recommendations around menopause support. None of it sounded that major: no mandatory high-voltage air-conditioning units in public venues, no blanket rules on when to, and when not to, bother a menopausal woman with your nonsense, nothing like that. Just some basic workplace support from larger employers – specific menopause leave, more flexibility on sickness policy, a move to make the menopause a protected characteristic, so that there would be a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments for it.
Ministers noped all the crunchy bits, agreeing “in principle” to the floppy, pointless bits – a menopause “ambassador”, a public awareness campaign. Imagine, if you can bear your own teeth-grinding, what that campaign would look like: babyish fonts on a pink background, some 27-year-old-comms-professional-devised slogan telling you it’s OK not to feel OK. It’s like some devilish trolling operation: these menopausal women say they’re so angry they could set fire to furniture using only their white-hot eyeballs. Let’s put that to the test.
The stated reason for the government’s refusal is that these measures could themselves be discriminatory, disadvantaging men who have long-term health conditions. Somewhere, right now, there’s a diligent researcher trying to figure out whether the “andropause”, or male menopause, is actually just as prevalent, just as wide-ranging in its effects, only we don’t talk about it. It’s no joke being a man entering his 50s either, ladies; it also brings brain fog, irritability, fat redistribution, lack of enthusiasm and energy, and loss of muscle mass.
Unfortunately, it is quicker to embark on a medical degree and qualify than it is to persuade many men to go to the doctor, so no one will ever know how widespread these symptoms are. Also, it’s not caused by a rapid drop in testosterone, more a slow, terminal decline. So it’s not the same thing at all, and here’s an idea: let’s argue for ever over who has it worse. We could really up the ante and drag in cancer treatment, screening services and life expectancy, and nail once and for all who between the sexes is best served by the medical establishment, and who, commensurately, is neglected, and then find the culprit of this injustice. It’s probably that damn woke army again, them and their pronouns.
There is only one reason why the menopause won’t be made a protected characteristic: it’s really hard to take concrete steps on this without people building up rights in the workplace. Create a duty and you’ve created a right. Try to ensure that it’s equitable for men with long-term health conditions and wham, now there are rights all over the place and you can’t throw a stick without landing in a tribunal.
Ministers are in an unenviable bind. They went through all that Brexit pain, the economic damage and social division and sheer tedium of their own lame arguments, for the precise purpose of sloughing off EU interference in areas not limited to, but certainly featuring, workplace rights. This is meant to be the fun bit, where they warm their hands against the red-tape bonfire, which is to say, setting fire to your rights. And some idiot committee is asking for more. Talk about missing a memo.
The traditional to and fro in parliament – well-meant committees, amassing research, seeking action – reminds me really quite insistently of the Beck Depression Inventory: a number of sliding statements, from “I am not particularly discouraged about the future” to “I feel the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve”; from “I do not feel like a failure” to “I feel I am a complete failure as a person”. Guys, you’re not depressed; most of you probably aren’t even menopausal or andropausal. Making constructive suggestions to people who don’t want to build anything worthwhile is just an objectively bleak pursuit. I wish I had a better answer. I wish I could make “being decent and broadly pro-social, most of the time” a protected characteristic. Then at least committee members would have some rights.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 24 January 2023 to make it clear that the government had only rejected the equalities committee’s most significant suggestions, not all of them