This week saw Carol Vorderman and Mariella Frostrup berate the Government for a lack of serious action over the menopause in the workplace.
The last few years have seen a surge of action by women to highlight the impact of the menopause at work as surveys show large numbers of women – one in 10 in one large-scale report – have dropped out of the workplace as a result, a figure many say could be an underestimate.
Several employers now have menopause policies or networks or both, with information sessions aimed at men and women. There have also been a handful of tv programmes on the impact of the menopause as more female broadcasters remain in the workplace longer and speak out.
But so far there has been little concrete action from the Government in relation to the menopause at work, apart from the creation of a menopause employment champion recently. Indeed the Government rejected in full or in part 11 of the Women and Equalities Committee recommendations in their report on menopause at work.
At a recent Women and Equalities Committee meeting Kemi Badenoch, Minister for Women and Equalities, rejected a call for a pilot of menopause leave, labelling it a left-wing suggestion, and compared making menopause a protected characteristic with doing so for people with ginger hair or short people.
This week Maria Caulfield, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy and for Women, failed to attend a follow-up meeting to talk about menopause at work.
Tv presenter Carol Vorderman, who was giving evidence, told the Committee that she was “disgusted” with the Government’s response to calls for greater menopause rights, given the menopause could be detrimentally life-changing for large numbers of women.
Vorderman added that she was “horrified” at Badenoch’s comments which she said were insulting to all women. “I wondered what I was listening to,” she stated. “This is the 21st century. Women make up nearly half of the workforce and these are the women in government that are representing women. I was disgusted by them both”.
Mariella Frostrup, Chair of Menopause Mandate, also spoke at the Committee meeting, saying the lack of health support for women going through the menopause amounted to a “human rights abuse” and berated Caulfield for paying “lip service” to equalities issues. Frostrup said that, while some employers “at the top end” are talking about the menopause, it is up to the Government to ensure that good practice is available across the board. She added that currently “you need to be a bully to be heard about the menopause”, but that many women don’t feel confident enough to do that which is why the Government has to step in.
Referring to the recent Budget focus on getting older people back to work, she stated: “You cannot talk about bringing people back to work if there are no menopause policies.”
Both Vorderman and Frostrup backed the Committee’s recommendations for a pilot of menopause leave and for menopause to be included as a protected characteristic, with Frostrup stressing that it is an equalities issue rather than a women’s health issue. And they were sceptical about champions and ambassadors. They wanted to see effective action that recognises the scale of the problem. Frostup questioned what legal protections exist for women during the menopause if menopause is not deemed worthy of being a protected characteristic. Women often have to take action based on disability, she said, even though it is not a disability given it affects all women.
And she added that menopause is not, as the Government has argued in turning down the recommendation for menopause leave on the grounds that it could discriminate against men, comparable to a long-term health issue for men, given that it is a natural phase in all women’s lives. “That illustrates an ignorant and patronising attitude that has to change,” she stated.
The meeting, which focused on everything from HRT availability to GP training, also heard from Karen Arthur, host of the Menopause Whilst Black podcast, who said it is important not to assume that there is a one size fits all solution to menopause. She said that the focus on the menopause at work needs to go deeper and be more inclusive. She added that work to address the menopause is currently just scratching the surface.
Documentary maker Kate Muir said it was interesting that Maria Caulfield is also Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Mental Health and Women’s Health, given research shows many menopausal women suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. She feels that the UK is at a “tipping point” and said the appointment of a Women’s Health Ambassador and plans for women’s health hubs, although there are not many, are a start.
But for Vorderman talk of part-time champions and ambassadors is not sufficient to address the scale of the problem and the Government’s response to the Committee’s report as well as the no-show of Maria Caulfield were not a positive sign.
Frostrup talked of a widespread and deep-rooted dismissiveness when it comes to the menopause. “There is a culture of abhorrence when it comes to the menopause,” she said. “It is the last frontier for equalities.”