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The Government’s rejection of several recommendations on the menopause at work made by the Women & Equalities Committee raises questions about what the way forward should be.
The Government’s response to the Women & Equalities Committee report on the menopause was published this week. It has brought a lot of articles and comment. On the one hand, that is a really good thing. A few years ago menopause would hardly have got a look in. Now it is definitely much higher profile.
On the other hand, the Government rejected many of the Committee’s recommendations. The one that seemed to get the most attention was to pilot menopause leave. The Government said menopause leave may not help its aims of promoting best practice in addressing the menopause and other forms of support such as flexible working. It says “specific menopause leave may be counterproductive”. There is certainly an argument about that. The symptoms of the menopause can go on for many years and, while some women suffer much worse than others, having a leave specifically for the menopause could suggest that women are in some way in hock to their hormones – from their mid-30s onwards basically – and therefore not reliable as employees.
Nevertheless, employers have in the past [and, unfortunately still] been accused of not hiring women because they might get pregnant. But maternity leave is necessary to allow the body to recover as well as for other reasons. Plus it only lasts a short time. Menopause can go on for years. Moreover, if you introduce menopause leave, why not period leave? It’s basically the same kind of thing. Could that suggest that hiring women is a bit of a charitable act?
That is not to say that greater awareness of the menopause is not absolutely vital and all the work being done to raise the profile of the menopause and promote greater understanding at work is great – just being able to talk to a manager and ask for a bit more flexibility goes a long way or, if the symptoms are really bad, to take sick leave.
There were other recommendations, however, that the Government rejected which are less understandable, for instance, the call for legal claims based on dual characteristics of, for instance, age and sexism. The Government said it was worried about creating new areas for legal dispute, for instance, over self-identity, and a hierarchy of rights. Yet we know that discrimination is often intersectional and complicated. Shouldn’t the law acknowledge that? Currently women have to choose to either file a claim due to ageism, sex discrimination or, in some cases, disability discrimination. Being able to use more than one characteristic could strengthen their case, it is argued.
The Government also rejected a recommendation for new legislation on menopause discrimination, saying discrimination can be dealt with in other ways, for example, by expanding the reasonable adjustments section of disability legislation. It means, once again, shoehorning menopausal women into another box which may not be wholly adequate for dealing with the kind of discrimination they are facing. Perhaps reasonable adjustments won’t solve the problem if a manager is just biased against older menopausal women. It adds that specific menopause legislation could be discriminatory towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions, although menopause is different from health conditions in that it affects all women.
Other recommendations which it rejects are a call to create model menopause policies to encourage employers to be more aware of the issue. This is because other organisations have created their own policies. Why not just share these, argues the Government, and let its menopause champion lead a communications campaign? I’m all for sharing good practice, but employers on their own don’t have the clout of Government, they can’t get out to all the many SMEs up and down the country and a one-off communications campaign is unlikely to bring lasting practical change. Of course, everyone can adapt policies to their own circumstances, but having a model policy would help them to make a start and to know that the Government supports better practice in this area.