One in 10 women have left work because of symptoms of the menopause. It is being talked about as a ‘national scandal’. So, should menopause be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act? We’ll consider that.
This is research by the Fawcett Society and Channel 4 which has been covered by People Management. The survey polled 4,000 women aged 45-55. It found 14% of women in this group had reduced their hours, and 8% had not applied for a promotion because of menopause symptoms.
Commenting on the data, Janet Lindsay, CEO of Wellbeing of Women, is quoted saying how the report showed that thousands of women were passing-up promotions, reducing their hours or giving up their jobs because of the menopause. She said: ‘Women over the age of 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace and more support should be offered to ensure they remain in work because women around this age are usually at their most productive and experienced during this life stage.’ As ITV News reports, the research will feature in a new Channel 4 documentary with Davina McCall.
The Guardian covers this and quotes chief executive Jemima Olchawski who says women going through the menopause were ‘experiencing unnecessary misery and described the situation as a ‘national scandal’. She said the government needed to force change on employers ranging from a requirement to have action plans to creating a route into menopause healthcare with GPs trained up to spot menopause symptoms.
One of the actions under consideration is new legislation making the menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act so it gets its own legal status. In a parliamentary session on 16 March that was one of the issues under consideration - the Queen’s Speech last week didn’t moves things any further forward, unfortunately.
So, let’s consider this with the help of diversity and inclusion specialist, Kate Dodd who joined me by video-link to discuss the issue. I started by asking Kate whether it’s likely that menopause will become the tenth protected characteristic:
Kate Dodd: “Yes, I do, I think it is likely and I think that the pressure on the government over this is strong and I think justifiably so. We have seen for decades, women leaving the workforce because of menopausal issues, because it's not understood because women themselves don't understand it. The symptoms of the menopause are not just physical symptoms. People think oh it's just a hot flush, we'll give somebody a desk fan, and that will deal with it. What we know about the menopause is it creates all sorts of kind of hormonal imbalances and it can lead to crushing anxiety, huge loss of confidence, people experiencing physical symptoms that they've never experienced in their life before and they don't know what's wrong with them. People don't know what's wrong with themselves and they don't recognise that what they're going through emotionally and mentally is related to the menopause and we see women opting out of their careers at the very time they should be absolutely flying and, at the very time that the business needs them to be flying, businesses are losing women at times when they can least afford to do so.”
Joe Glavina: “So do you think we need this law change to force employers to better support women? A stick to hit them with?”
Kate Dodd: “Yes, and no. I don't think we should think of it as a stick, really, although I do think that we know that people are driven by what's in legislation so until it becomes a protected characteristic it's not going to necessarily get the attention of the board of directors, for example. I do think, though, that there is an increasing understanding of menopause. It has become the stuff of celebrity discussions, huge amounts of a profile particularly over the last year and women who are now coming into their 50s, who have been around in the public eye for a long time, are talking about their own experiences of menopause and that, of course, is hugely beneficial and is really changing the dialogue on this but there will still be employers who do not take action until such time as it is legislated and, therefore, I do think that this needs to become the 10th protected characteristic, or perhaps it can become the ninth and we can do away with the unnecessary protected characteristic of marital status which basically is not really fit for purpose anymore, and have this instead. So, if people say we can't possibly go to ten, well let's get rid of one of the other ones then.”
Joe Glavina: “There have been relatively few tribunal cases on this subject, Kate, but I do wonder if that’s going to change given the publicity this is getting. There’s now much more awareness around this issue now.”
Kate Dodd: “Oh yes, absolutely and recently I’ve written an article on this, actually, and we looked at the statistics around this and the numbers in tribunal are growing year on year. It’s still only quite small at the moment but the increase is more than 100% each year so it really is gaining momentum all the time and, the fact of the matter is, it is not just about employment here, it’s also about access to goods and services and I think there's going to be increasing litigation. So, for example lots of private health insurance do not cover menopause under the things that they will help women with because they say it's a natural part of ageing. Now, there is nothing equivalent that is not covered for men in relation to that and, you know, if you need a hip replacement, that type of thing, you would be covered. So, this is something that is unique to women, it only affects women, and in the same way as childbirth is covered in pregnancy this needs to have legislation around it to provide that additional protection.”
Joe Glavina: “In the evidence session last week all the lawyers agreed that having a menopause policy was a good idea. Is that something your clients are asking for?”
Kate Dodd: “Yes, we are increasingly seeing them being asked for and we're always delighted when that is the case. Employers don’t need to wait for this to become legislation to take these steps. What a policy does is it means women find it easier to reach out for help, it makes women be able to say, look, actually, this is not embarrassing to talk about anymore, we never talk about these types of women's health issues in the workplace so why would we suddenly start talking about menopause? There’s a huge taboo that exists around this and therefore a policy can go so far towards that and it's really to see and making sure that, as well as the policy, you've got some guidance for managers to understand how to apply it is absolutely fantastic and if you can set up a menopause support group to bring people together to talk about this, men and women, then all the better because that really is best practice.”
There is also a health and safety angle to this and you may be interested in that. Zoe Betts has been talking to this programme about that – the role of HR and H&S specialists in supporting women experiencing menopause. That’s ‘Menopause support at work is both an HR and H&S concern’ and is available now for viewing from the Outlaw website.