Why should employers care about the Menopause and Menstrual Cycle?
Women now make up nearly half the UK workforce. We all know – or should know – that health issues such as the menopause and the menstrual cycle can have a big impact on women’s health. And, in turn, this can have a major impact on their work.
No doubt, for all sorts of cultural and societal reasons, the impact of women’s health issues has not been considered or dealt with by most employers. However, awareness of gender issues at work has increased over recent years, probably due to factors such as the ever-increasing percentage of women in the workplace, strict obligations on equal pay reporting and even the rise of the `Me Too’ movement.
For those who are sceptical that this is something employers should be dealing with, let’s turn the argument on its head: if it affected men, we would have dealt with this a long time ago.
In the News
Indeed, the issue has been in the news a lot recently. To cite but a few examples: in 2020 the Scottish Government considered this amongst other matter in its 2021-2024 Women’s Health Plan (see pages 29-30); this summer the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee started an inquiry into: Menopause and the Workplace; October 2020 was World Menopause Month and 18 October 2020 was World Menopause Day; and for those interested there was a good discussion in a recent broadcast on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 (from 28 minutes on the recording).
It matters on a number of fronts.
Firstly, there is evidence that almost a million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms (as cited by the Women and Equalities Committee). And because menopause mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women leaving work at or near the peak of their career, with knock-on effects on workplace productivity and the gender pay/pension gap.
Secondly, even if women don’t leave their jobs, the resulting health issues can have a major impact on their productivity, effectiveness and confidence in their own ability. At best, all this could result in some women being actively or passively side-lined; at worst, there could be overt discrimination/harassment of the `gendered ageism’ variety (words involving `confusion’, dinosaur’ and `past her best’ spring to mind).
The legal point of view
From a legal point of view, we have seen the rise of employment tribunal claims concerning the menopause. According to a recent Times article, there were five cases cited in the last nine months of 2018, compared with ten cases in the first half of 2021 which could rise to 20 cases by the end of 2021. The number of cases will only increase.
For now, discrimination cases can only be pigeon-holed into the protected characteristic of gender or age. Because of this, there is some discussion of establishing `menopause’ as a protected characteristic, to give it the same legal footing as other protected characteristics such as sex, race, disability, age, etc.
There is also the option of implementing `combined’ or `intersectional’ discrimination, namely combining two characteristics – in this case, sex and age – to make it a unique form of discrimination. For the boffins, `combined discrimination’ was part of the Equality Act 2010 but was never implemented. You can read a good article on combined discrimination here.
From a practical point of view, employers can take steps to implement specific policies on the impact on menopause and the menstrual cycle. Formal policies can encourage employees to bring forward their concerns in the knowledge that it will be treated seriously and concerns heard in good faith. With formal policies comes better training of managers – as well as knowledge by employees about how to approach these difficult conversations and offer solutions to the issues.
It is easy to be cynical and consider that policies become a tick box exercise. But we have to start somewhere, and with time it will become normalised – for the better.