Should the menopause be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act? That was the central question being discussed last week by the Women and Equalities Committee in the latest evidence session considering how to better protect women who, too often, are forced to find legal workarounds to argue their case, for example using age, disability, or sex as the legal basis for a discrimination claim.
The evidence session week chaired, by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, was the latest development in the government’s Inquiry into Menopause and the Workplace, looking at the extent of discrimination faced by menopausal women and how government policy and workplace practices can better support women. Among the witnesses was employment lawyer and ELA Chair, Marian Bloodworth. She told the committee that many women face discrimination, ranging from inappropriate and offensive comments to missing out on pay or promotions, simply because they are perceived to be going through the menopause, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms. She said on top of that, many women have physical or mental symptoms which literally impact their ability to work. She told the committee she was in favour of a new protected characteristic of menopause to make it unlawful to discriminate against somebody either because they are menopausal or perimenopausal, or because there is that perception. The MPs went on to hear how many women who have performance problems related to their menopausal symptoms too often end up being managed out of the business.
The committee meeting came just three days after research warned a million women with menopausal symptoms are under pressure to leave their jobs because of a lack of support with businesses being urged to create a more open culture to allow women to feel able to discuss the issue with colleagues. People Management reports the poll of 2,000 women currently experiencing menopause or perimenopausal symptoms across the UK, which found 18% were looking to leave their jobs because of their symptoms, experienced women with a huge amount to offer who were being lost to the business needlessly.
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 government over this I, 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 to 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 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 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.”
Last week’s evidence session held by the Women and Equalities Committee was recorded in full and is available for viewing from the Parliamentlive website. We have put a link to that in the transcript of this programme.