The UK government has rejected committee recommendations to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic and pilot a workplace menopause leave policy in England.
The Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons, which produced a report with recommendations based on the impact of menopause, criticised the “glacial” government progress on this issue and called it a “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce”.
As part of its response, the government said it would not launch a consultation on these recommendations, including a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for menopausal employees, as such action risked “unintended consequences [that] may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination”.
Some of the discrimination risks identified by the government included being towards “men suffering from long-term medical conditions or eroding existing protections”.
Instead of a change in legislation, the government said it was focused on encouraging employers to implement workplace menopause policies, adding: "We are concerned that specific menopause leave may be counterproductive to achieving this goal."
The committee’s report, first published in July 2022, argued that the impact of menopause was causing the UK economy to “haemorrhage talent”, and that “the current law does not sufficiently protect women experiencing menopause and does not offer proper redress to those who suffer menopause-related discrimination, with evidence that many women have to demonstrate their menopausal symptoms amount to a disability to get redress”.
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While the government said it has accepted, partly accepted or accepted in principle six of the recommendations, the committee criticised its lack of action as it “has not actually committed to any new work in response to the report”.
But, despite the rejected recommendations, Musab Hemsi, legal director of Anderson Strathern, pointed out that there were still situations where employers could find themselves in hot water for disregarding workplace issues associated with menopause. “Menopause can attract legal protection under both the gender and age provisions of the Equality Act, and the intersectionality between those two protected characteristics,” he said.
Deborah Garlick, chief executive of Henpicked, said that as menopause could come under the protected characteristics of age, sex and even disability, the issues of menopause were now on the radar of many more employers: “So while I understand the frustration around the government not agreeing to make it a protected characteristic, and it’s not ideal, I do feel it’s at least recognised in terms of diversity and inclusion.”
When it comes to the shift in attitude that will help businesses to tackle this issue, Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, said the starting point was “opening up the culture to allow employees to talk about the menopause if they would like to and any adjustments that could support them, such as flexibility in hours, options to work from home, proper ventilation while at work, uniform adaptations, access to restroom facilities and breaks”.
And as some might be battling debilitating menopause symptoms in the workplace, she advised line managers to start by “having a confidential, two-way conversation with the individual to identify the specific issues that person is experiencing”.
“Consider involving relevant experts where appropriate, such as an occupational health practitioner, to help identify appropriate adjustments that could be put in place to help ease the impact of their symptoms on their work. They should record any specific needs (and agreed adjustments) and review these at least annually,” McCartney added.
In addition, Cleo Madeleine, communications officer at Gendered Intelligence, said that while the vast majority of conversations around menopause were “completely understandably about cisgender women”, “there are still hundreds of thousands of trans men and non-binary people who may need similar support”.
“As we have seen with other aspects of gendered healthcare, like cervical screening, a lack of representation can lead to trans people not getting the care they need – they may not even realise it's available,” Madeleine said, adding that “addressing this can be as simple as explicitly mentioning trans people in organisational policies or including them in informational materials”.
The development comes after NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard released the first national guidance on menopause last year, and called on other employers to “break the stigma” and follow in its footsteps.
The guidance encouraged line managers and employees to “normalise asking for help” and introduce practical measures such as flexible working, lighter duties, fans to reduce temperatures, cooler uniforms and staff training.