In late January, government ministers blocked a proposal to make menopause a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act of 2010. Similarly, calls for a large-scale pilot of menopausal leave in England were rejected.
These proposals formed part of the cross-party Women and Equalities committee’s report titled ‘Menopause and the workplace’. The report called for Government consultation whereby menopause would become a “protected characteristic” against which it would be illegal to discriminate. Other current protected characteristics include age, disability, and race.
The report received a government response three-and-a-half months late, with its rejection in part attributed to fears that the suggested moves could “discriminate against men”. Alongside this, the suggested implementation of “menopausal leave” was specifically denied due to concerns about “counterproductivity”.
I did have a snide giggle when I first read ‘counterproductivity’. If only my uterus knew about the demands of the 9 to 5, maybe it would stop the monthly heinous agony. As someone who’s had a decade of chronic period pain, and who also had an agonising IUD insertion to hopefully put an end to it, I really feel for all those men who are being discriminated against. Maybe they should try some light exercise to relieve symptoms?
A Government spokesperson assured us that Sunak’s government has put “women’s health at the top of the agenda as part of the first-ever women’s health strategy for England“. Yet, the 2021 Women’s Health Index Report places healthcare for women in the UK at rank 30, tied with Kazakhstan and markedly lower than France, the US, and Germany.
It’s safe to say, Women and Equalities committee chair Caroline Nokes is not hysterical when she describes herself as “unconvinced that menopause is a government priority”. If you think the word hysterical seems out of place there, you’ll be pleased to hear it comes from the Greek word “hyster”, which literally translates to uterus.
Originally enraged at this news, I fantasised about a world in which men had to deal with menopause and menstruation. A perversely hilarious thought experiment to say the least… come on, they would probably have heating pads at bus stops. And there certainly would have been some anaesthetic for that IUD.
Then, the famous Fleabag scene came to mind. Kristen Scott Thomas, in a monologue that did quite literally change my life, describes women as having pain on a cycle for years and years. But then describes menopause as “the most wonderful f*cking thing in the world”.
I suddenly realised that I don’t know a great deal about the practicalities of menopause at all. Descriptions range from liberating to a huge inconvenience, symptoms sometimes drastic but sometimes very mild. It’s not something we ever really see on TV or hear being talked about in-depth, lest we make men uncomfortable.
It struck me that I’d never really asked the women around me what it’s even like, let alone how it affects their work. Given the government that claims to be prioritising women’s health seems more concerned with productivity, I thought I’d figure out what structural support exists in the workplace currently, and ask some women how they think we should be approaching it.
I interviewed three different women about their experience with menopause, with varying employers and different demands in their job. A recurring theme was that I was surprised by how little I knew about what menopause looks like at work.
Jo, who works for a small law firm in London, described her younger colleagues as “being a bit alien” to menopause and HRT (hormonal replacement therapy), so she is often inclined to say she has a headache or stomach upset rather than a menopause moment. Although, she feels if things got really bad she would speak to HR who she “thinks would be reasonably supportive… but who knows”.
“I have a good team of people but it’s still a taboo subject I feel”.
On the subject of government legislation Jo agreed that for those who suffer a lot worse, “government legislation would give some reassurance of support being there”. Describing the move as wholly positive, she did acknowledge that there’s always a risk that some looking for an excuse to take a few days off could add up for employers. But, she did add, “if employees want to take time off they will. There’s always some who work hard and those who are constantly late or sick”.
Jane, who works at an independent school, told me her symptoms weren’t too extreme. She did, however, describe colleagues often needing toilet breaks. This can be problematic as a teacher, as you need to supervise pupils and can’t just leave the room on a whim. Something so specific to her job made me realise there must be all these niche inconveniences in various workplace settings.
Her employer is working on a menopause policy, with the availability of fans for hot flushes being discussed, but not in place yet. Jane agreed that some legislation would be helpful to support women who experience extreme symptoms. Explaining that there’s “so little understanding about how menopause can impact women”, even amongst women.
“Those who are negatively impacted have very little protection from unsupportive male or female colleagues. Several women I know in high-powered positions are often quite unsupportive of other women who are speaking out about the sexism they encounter at work. It still seems like to get on you are often meant to just ignore anything that makes things difficult for those in charge.”
Angela, who worked as a GP, explained that although employers need to be sympathetic in both personal and policy approaches, we do risk over-pathologising menopause as a society. She thinks it’s more helpful to view it as a natural process, although she did acknowledge she had a straightforward menopause herself.
“Workplaces should be menopause aware and line managers should understand women’s mood or work standards can be affected. Sympathetic tolerance is important, and employers should understand that doctor’s visits may be needed.”
Angela said she, “would be concerned if it were to be viewed as a disability… it should not be seen as an illness”. Expanding on this, she explained women should be robust about menopause, and that it’s not entirely helpful for us to see it as an illness or excuse.
“There is a danger that making menopause an ‘illness’ could prolong the symptoms or magnify the condition for some people. I say this partly because there is a big difference in how disabling menopause is in different cultures. You have to be careful not to disempower women by labelling it as abnormal.”
Evidently, your personal relationship with your employer and your own symptom severity has a drastic effect on how manageable your menopause is in the workplace. Jane’s point about those in high-power positions having little sympathy really stuck with me. Hopefully, a future baseline policy or mainstream government support will eventually hold all employers to a higher standard of support.