Voices: Menopausal working women must be protected by law

Menopause isn’t a disability nor a long–term form of ill health, it’s a transitional period and a fact of life (Getty)
Menopause isn’t a disability nor a long–term form of ill health, it’s a transitional period and a fact of life (Getty)

Given the flood of menopausal women leaving the workplace, you might expect the Women and Equalities Committee report to have received a series of enthusiastic ticks from the government, glad that the likes of MPs Caroline Nokes and Carolyn Harris had done the necessary legwork. Instead, the three months delayed government response sounds as convoluted as a teenager explaining why their coursework is late.

The report recommends ways in which to protect and retain the nation’s rapidly emptying pool of menopausal workers. But five key recommendations out of 12 were rejected outright, including the eminently sensible suggestion that there be a consultation on making menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

Speaking as the chair of Menopause Mandate, I was surprised by the government’s defensive attitude, riddled with a misunderstanding about menopause and how it can affect working women.

At the moment the situation is dire. We have a veritable brain drain of brilliant and talented women in midlife with a wealth of expertise and experience. Last year, The Fawcett Society Menopause and the Workplace Report revealed that one in 10 women who worked during menopause have left because of symptoms. It’s patently obvious that women need more support, employers would like to retain their staff, and reform is urgently needed.

Menopause will affect 50 per cent of the population. It’s a staging post in the fertility journey of every woman, as the hormones that went up in puberty go down again, causing more than 50 (so it’s said) symptoms ranging from hot flushes to anxiety and depression. Most women will experience at least one symptom and one in four experience such severe symptoms that their quality of life is affected. Menopause has been dismissed, ignored, and treated as a shameful embarrassment for far too long. Refusing to acknowledge it in its own right is insulting. It feels as though menopausal women and their needs are yet again being dismissed.

And yet, here we are, being told that menopause can be slotted in age, sex, or disability when it comes to protected characteristics. These all, say the po-faced government comments, “provide protection against unfair treatment of employees going through menopause”. For them to suggest that employment rights and support for half the population during a liminal phase (which is already much stigmatised) should be umbrellaed by other categories, rather than given its own, seems particularly ironic. Menopause isn’t a disability nor a long-term form of ill health, it’s a transitional period and a fact of life.

Menopause Mandate expert and employment partner at gunnercooke LLP Emma Hammond agrees that the current provision is inadequate: “The current protected characteristics in the Equality Act require women to frame their circumstances into age, sex or disability discrimination claims which is far from satisfactory – these characteristics don’t cover enough scenarios or protect enough women”. She points out that there could be many positives with a new protected characteristic, including simplifying the position for employers.

As MP and chair of the committee, Caroline Nokes explained in her letter to health minister Maria Caulfield, the whole response is a missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce.

And as I observed on BBC Breakfast earlier in the day, just a couple of weeks ago the Treasury was talking about policies to get people back to work. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep them there in the first place? Surely one of the most obvious things to do is acknowledge menopause and its potential significance for every woman. By rejecting the suggestion that it be a protected characteristic, the government is failing to do just that.

‘Cracking the Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together’ by Mariella Frostrup and Alice Smellie is out now in paperback (Bluebird, £9.99)