Menopause and the workplace – the hidden discrimination
The number of older women in the workforce is higher than it has ever been. In many sectors of the UK labour market, women outnumber men in employment and women between the ages of 55-64 are the fast growing demographic in the workplace.
To what extent is the workforce affected?
On average, women experience natural menopause at the age of 51 and they can experience initial symptoms, known as perimenopause, years earlier. This means that most women will go through significant, hormonal changes during their working lives.
Despite the fact that the menopause is a natural occurrence that affects all women, it is rarely given the attention it deserves in the context of work. This will be, in part, because women choose not to discuss their experiences and try to mask the side-effects. Symptoms can be embarrassing and it is often a personal and private challenge, especially for those who develop symptoms at a relatively young age.
In truth, it can be a devastating time for women. Some women will struggle to come to terms with the fact that it limits their ability to have children and many will suffer severe symptoms which can be both physically and mentally debilitating.
Line managers may not be able to offer support because of a lack of awareness, recognition and understanding.
Employers should do more. Government should do more.
In July 2021, the House of Commons' Women and Equalities Committee launched a new inquiry into menopause and the workplace with the aim of finding out whether current legislation goes far enough.
Highlighting the unfairness faced by so many, Caroline Nokes MP, the Committee's Chair, said: "These are women in the prime of their lives, in their late 40s and 50s, who should be in senior positions……These are the people who should be the trailblazers and role models for younger people in the workplace."
"Unfairness" is perhaps devaluing or under appreciating the real impact. Some of the widely recognised symptoms; insomnia, night sweats, hot flushes, headaches, weight gain, irritability, stress, anxiety, depression, challenges concentrating and reduced, cognitive function, can be life-changing.
If often causes reduced engagement and efficiency in work, absence or a desire to leave work altogether. A survey carried out by Bupa and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in 2019 suggested that almost a million women to date have left their jobs because of the menopause or perimenopause.
Is the landscape changing?
Inevitably, this demographic growth is reflected in an upwards trend in related legal action. Legal claims for discrimination connected with menopause has increased year on year. In the first six months of this year alone, there have been 10 Employment Tribunal claims recorded as directly relating to menopause. This follows a steady rise in cases; five in 2018, six in 2019 and 16 in 2020.
That may strike you as a low set of numbers, given the relative percentage of the workforce affected. Rather than assuming women aren't being subjected to ill health capability or performance procedures and losing their jobs as a consequence, perhaps the barriers to challenging dismissals and treatment flows from the lack of protection afforded to menopausal status in the Equality Act 2010.
Cultural change is needed from employers to more proactively protect their female workforce, which starts with removing the taboo. Without the right environment, women may be reluctant to discuss highly personal circumstances with line managers. This may also explain the low levels of challenging the treatment they face; the desire not to have sensitive symptoms and experiences scrutinised as part of grievances or when giving evidence in front of a Judge at a public hearing.
What protection does current law give to menopausal women?
The Equality Act 2010 protects workers against discrimination because of sex, age or disability.
- The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires an employer to, where reasonably practical, ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees at work.
Whilst the menopause itself is not a protected characteristic in law, age, sex and disability are. Any adverse treatment which is related to the menopause or related symptoms could well constitute discrimination on one or all of these grounds.
As with most challenges faced by workers, encouraging them to express their concerns, listening to those concerns and finding ways to try to overcome those barrier will go a long way to retaining women facing these circumstances. They are undoubtedly amongst the most important contributors to any business.