The Women and Equalities Committee’s (WEC) report, published on 28 July, is a welcome read. The committee has taken the challenges that a large proportion of 51 per cent of the UK’s population will experience menopause seriously and set out several sensible substantive strategies.
Its recommendation to make menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act could have an enormous impact by addressing multiple forms of discrimination and supporting those who experience them – not just cisgender women but everyone who experiences menopause. The report also recommends the introduction of Section 14, which allows claims based on dual discrimination – for example, based on sex and age. Again, I applaud this.
The report paves the way for a long, overdue change, but only if the government acts on it. I speak from experience on this. In 2017 I was the lead author on a UK Government Equalities Office-commissioned report, which found that, despite being something more than half of the world’s population share, people were still afraid or embarrassed to talk about menopause at work.
We attracted a lot of attention and helped to trigger some enormous strides in workplace practices for millions of employees across the UK. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the government of the time failed to take us seriously. Nevertheless, this time I’m optimistic that, as long as our policymakers don’t drop the ball and make these recommendations happen, this could be the impetus employers still dragging their heels need to take practical steps to support people who struggle through menopause.
I’m also pleased that the report doesn’t advocate that the government make having a workplace menopause strategy obligatory for all employers. While there are plenty of instances – particularly in large bureaucratic institutions – where this is the only way to go, there’s too much evidence that policies can fail to impact workplace practice. In many organisations, it would be much better to encourage open conversations, guidance and support.
On that point, as someone who has dedicated the last six years of her career to breaking workplace menopause taboos, I keep coming back to the importance of education to bust myths. For most people, menopause is a normal and natural process and a phase in their reproductive life course that doesn’t go on forever and needn’t be an off-limits topic. Everyone ought to know what this thing is, who it affects and how diverse an experience it can be. It doesn’t only happen in old age. It doesn’t send you loopy and, for as many as 40 per cent of people, it has little to no impact on their lives. I’d like to see more education in schools and better skills development for physicians. The more we keep this conversation going and amplify it, the more we’ll understand menopause and the better we’ll be able to support those who struggle through the experience. The time has more than come.
Jo Brewis is professor of people and organisations at the Open University