More and more attention is being given to the impact of the menopause at work and, while greater awareness and understanding is vital, could calls for specific menopause leave be detrimental to women in the long run?
Some MPs are reported to be considering action to protect women suffering from the menopause in the workplace. Already several employers have taken the lead and published menopause policies which include adjustments to uniforms to account for hot flushes, moving women to desks with greater ventilation and creating private spaces where women could go to rest and talk to a colleague if they are feeling down.
A recent survey found one in five older women had taken days off due to symptoms of the menopause. Recognition of its potential impact is surely a good thing – the taboo around it has made understanding and empathy difficult.
Of course, not all women suffer in the same way and each person’s perception of the symptoms is subjective. I’ve found the hot flushes really uncomfortable, but mainly brief. At certain times they seem to come very regularly. At others, there are days or weeks between them. I definitely feel a general overwhelming sense of sadness and loss. I’m not sure if this is the menopause, attitudes to older women and ageing, overwork and overparenting, dealing with teenagers’ emotional swings or Brexit, or a combination of all of these. I’ve started getting really bad sinusitis if I get overtired, which is fairly often, given overwork and overparenting. It lasts for 24 hours, but can cause very bad headaches. Mercifully – or not – it usually tends to strike at the weekend. I went through a period of hair loss and sometimes things are a bit foggy, but mostly I am okay. I know many women have it much worse.
It is definitely something that no-one used to talk about and that I wasn’t fully prepared for – particularly how long it seems to last – so being more open about it has to be a good thing. And adjustments to hours, uniform and seating are minor things that can make a huge amount of difference to women.
And yet, I’m not sure about things like menopause leave. Just as I am not sure about period leave. Boxing things off into specific forms of leave seems to send a message to employers that women are really a total liability, in thrall to their hormones – conforming to the age-old stereotype. At a time when discrimination against women is high and, according to latest research, one in eight employers would avoid hiring a woman of childbearing age in case she got pregnant [which is, let’s restate it, illegal], it seems not to be a great idea to be pushing for more leave for women based on their biology when there is basically no equivalent for men, even though research shows that hormones can impair their judgement, for instance.
We already have sick leave so why do we need to portion it off into certain types of leave linked to specific conditions? Isn’t it more about training managers to understand the basic human condition and to recognise that we are not machines and that, in an age of automation, this can be a strength?
We are in a bit of an algorithm backlash at the moment. I am sure algorithms will improve, although they are unlikely ever to be wholly objective – every change always throws up potential problems, but I would argue that understanding people should gain more importance in the future, making human resources – and most particularly the human part – even more important.
Nevertheless, while general awareness raising, greater understanding and management training are important they are insufficient to protect women from poor employers. There may well be a case for widening the focus on discrimination against younger women to older ones as well as improving enforcement. Perhaps existing legislation is enough, but it might be worth looking at as more and more women remain in the workplace.