The UK government has partly rejected proposals to change UK legislation to protect the rights of women experiencing menopause, on the grounds the move would discriminate against men. It’s a big kick in the teeth.
Let’s cut to the chase – I’m fucking furious.
Furious that complacent men are making arbitrary but crucial decisions about women, their welfare, their anatomy and biology and how that affects them. I know, I know, hashtag-not-all-men blah blah blah. And maybe some of them weren’t even men, but my guess is not many. And no, I’m not a rabid anti-men-feminist. Indeed, I’ve had many wonderful, supportive men message me about how ridiculous this all is. So my ire and rants are very firmly directed at the men, and maybe women, who aren’t the good guys; who accuse menopausal women deeply distressed by their mental and physical symptoms of “moping” or “overreacting”.
For those not anxiously following the progress of the Menopause and the Workplace Report produced and presented by the Women and Equalities Committee for government approval, I can confirm that they achieved virtually a clean sweep. A full sweep of rejections, that is.
1. Make menopause a protected characteristic – recommendation rejected
2. Model menopause policies – recommendation rejected
3. Menopause leave – recommendation rejected
Their disappointed surmise that ministers were making “glacial progress” on menopause support barely scratches the surface of the frustration and disappointment we are all feeling. It’s too restrained. We need to be more angry and determined. This is a regressive, retrograde and enraging decision that we need to fight.
To add insult to injury, the Protected Characteristic recommendation was rejected on the basis that it might be a bit unfair to men. What the actual fuck? The government response states that making the menopause a protected characteristic would mean employers would have “a duty to make reasonable adjustments for menopausal employees”, which could have “unintended consequences, which may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, for example, discrimination risks towards men suffering from long term medical conditions or eroding existing protections”.
God forbid that men might feel put out by their organisations looking out for struggling menopausal women. Did it occur to the government that there might also be women that might suffer from long-term medical conditions? Or that businesses should most definitely protect anyone who is suffering in this way, irrespective of gender. But that should in no way stop the right thing from happening for millions of menopausal women in our nation’s workforce.
The UK has about four million employed women aged between 45 and 55, which makes menopausal-age women the largest proportion of the current workforce. A significant number of them experience challenging symptoms and feel strongly that those around them at work are unsympathetic or treat them badly, because of gendered ageism. So, you might think that this sort of affliction in the workplace might be protected by law. It is, after all, both an occupational health and equality issue.
But the 2010 Equalities Act, which deals with protected characteristics in the workplace (among other things) does not cover menopause. Pregnancy and maternity are, as, of course, are race, religion, sexual orientation and gender reassignment, alongside marriage/civil partnership, sex, age and disability. You could perhaps argue that menopause is catered for by age, sex and/or disability, but it’s discomforting for it to be so vague, and it’s why there has been such a huge push to get menopause formally categorised.
So, that’s the first kick in the teeth.
The second is the rejection to require organisations to put a menopause policy in place. How difficult is that, really? But in our own industry, 87% of companies have admitted that they don’t have one. I bloody well wrote an extensively researched open source one so that it could be as effortless as possible. Channel 4 has made its available. Yet the excuses roll in… well, if we have a menopause policy, we’ll have to have a miscarriage policy, a premature birth policy, and a period policy, and a mental health policy. Er, yes, that would be good. But, baby steps and all: set out a roadmap, with an ambition to put all of them in place.
In the same way as companies that employ more than 250 people are obliged to publish their gender pay gap, why can’t we require organisations of that scale to implement a menopause policy? There are brilliant places out there putting incredible packages together to protect their staff, but some businesses just won’t do it without a diktat. That’s behaviour change for you. But no, the government felt it “wasn’t necessary at this moment” and was enough to “encourage and disseminate awareness, good practice and guidance to employers”.
Lastly, they also rejected the recommendation for menopause leave. To be clear, the suggestion wasn’t that women of a menopausal age could just magically take the whole of their menopause off as paid leave. It was just a recommendation that the government should pilot a menopause leave policy with a large public sector employer to see what might work and whether further proposals could come out of it. Apparently, this was simply deemed to be “counterproductive”.
As Mariella Frostrup, chairman of Menopause Mandate, eloquently summed it up: “A couple of weeks ago the Treasury was talking about policies to get people back to work. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep them there in the first place?”
The only way to create change is to fight. We need to fight bottom up and top down. For those keen to support, encourage your employers to put in place a menopause policy (help yourself, you’re welcome), to ensure that flexible working policies can indeed flex and that you look out for careless “jokes” about forgetful, sweaty, middle-aged women. It all helps.
In the meantime, we’re rolling our sleeves up and going again. Watch this space.
Melissa Robertson is chief executive of Dark Horses, which released an open-source menopause policy back in 2021.