Do menopausal women need extra protection in law?

A report from the Women and Equalities Committee last week called on the Government to consult on adding menopause as an extra protected characteristic under the Equality Act. What lies behind the recommendation?

Woman with a headache

 

There has been a lot of talk about the menopause in the last few years after near silence in the years before, particularly when it came to the impact of the menopause at work.

Figures show menopausal women are the fastest growing group in the workplace due in part to more women staying in or coming back to the workforce after having children or while managing other caring responsibilities. And yet they face significant challenges. Some 44% of menopausal women in employment say their ability to work has been affected by their symptoms, yet eight in 10 say their workplace has no basic support in place for them, according to recent survey data commissioned by Channel 4 of over 4,000 women.

Concerns about menopause in the workplace has prompted several employers to implement menopause policies or create menopause networks and has also genereated discussions in Parliament about the need for possible legislation to protect women. There is disagreement about whether legislation is needed, with some arguing that that would open the door for legislation on many other individual health-related issues and that awareness and destigmatising the menopause generally is more important. Others argue that, given the menopause will affect half the population and can lead to women dropping out of the workforce, they should have some form of additional protection.

A report from Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee last week stopped short of asking for equality legislation to be extended to menopause, but instead recommended that the Government should consult on this. It also called on the Government to enable dual discrimination claims – on gender and age – under the Equality Act.

The report on the menopause says the current law does not serve or protect menopausal women and that there is poor employer awareness of both health and safety and equality law relating to menopause.  It adds that the law does not offer proper redress to those who suffer menopause-related discrimination. The report says menopausal women “need, and deserve, a better safety net”.

Currently you can only sue for direct discrimination using one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Joanna Brewis, Professor of People and Organisations at the Open University Business School, told the Committee’s enquiry into the menopause at work that being able to use more than one could strengthen a woman’s case.

She also warned that employers could face cases of breaches of their duty of care under health and safety at work legislation if work puts women’s health at greater risk by worsening menopause symptoms. Professor Brewis said the Government needs to raise employers’ awareness of the risk of legal action, warning that there have been a handful of successful menopause cases at tribunal and that more are likely to be in the pipeline.

This certainly seems to be likely as awareness of the issues continues to grow. There are some great example of employers taking up the baton on the menopause. In our 2022 Best Practice Report there are several examples, from construction firm Aggregate Industries to tech training and skills provider QA.

But, while it is important to spread knowledge about what such employers are doing, there are many that are not as progressive. That is where Government needs to step in and signal that discrimination against menopausal women is unacceptable and that there are some very simple actions that can be taken which will make a huge difference, for allowing flexi hours to providing better ventilation. In fact, in many cases it is more about awareness and understanding than extensive policies – and signposting women to sources of support so they know that the symptoms they are feeling are not unusual and that there is help available.



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