Changing equality law to offer greater protections to women experiencing the menopause should not be ruled out, the MP leading an inquiry into menopause discrimination has said.
Women and equalities committee chair Caroline Nokes said the inquiry had heard from women who had been forced to pursue disability claims against their employers after experiencing menopause-related discrimination at work, despite menopause not being a disability.
Under the Equality Act 2010, menopause discrimination is largely covered under three protected characteristics – age, sex and disability discrimination – but is not a protected characteristic itself.
The inquiry, launched by the committee last month, is looking into whether the act needs to be strengthened to recognise menopause as a protected characteristic, said Nokes, which may give women who experience menopause-related discrimination better access to compensation at employment tribunals.
“One of the key messages coming through is that people don’t feel that they’ve got adequate recourse to tribunals, because they think the legislation isn’t clear enough,” Nokes told the Guardian. “We are hearing too many stories of people finding the most convenient mechanism to bring a claim for disability discrimination – the menopause isn’t a disability.
“If the current legislation is working, then great. But if it’s not working, and we’ve made maternity a protected characteristic, then do we need to look at making the menopause a protected characteristic? The jury’s still very much still out on that [but] I really don’t rule it out.”
A 2019 CIPD and Bupa survey found that three in five menopausal women were negatively affected at work and almost 900,000 had left their jobs as a result of menopause symptoms.
Vodafone has also found that 33% of women hid menopause symptoms from their employer and 43% felt too embarrassed to ask for support.
Nokes said employers “can’t afford to lose all those experienced, talented women from the workplace”.
“We’ve suddenly all become incredibly determined to make sure that [menopause] isn’t a term of ridicule and derision; that it is recognised as a real physical, mental and emotional condition that is holding women back at work,” she added. “If companies want to retain experienced, qualified staff they need to make it easier to have those conversations, so that reasonable adjustments can be made.”
Andrew Crudge, an employment solicitor at Trethowans, said legislators will have to think carefully about what any change in law would cover.
“How any new legislation would operate in practice will be interesting. For example, with the protected characteristic of pregnancy, whether an employee is or is not pregnant is fairly clear to demonstrate. However, the menopause and its effects are often invisible and can vary significantly from woman to woman. As a result, we would expect new legislation to focus purely on the effects of the menopause, similar to a disability, rather than the fact alone that the employee is menopausal,” he said.
Crudge said employers should seek to create environments where employees feel comfortable talking with their manager or HR about their symptoms, regardless of whether the law is changed.
“This is much more difficult to legislate for and so, in our professional opinion, guidance and training for managers is likely to have the greatest positive impact,” he said.
The women and equalities committee’s inquiry is open until 17 September and is seeking evidence on a variety of issues, including the nature and extent of discrimination faced by women experiencing the menopause at work and in wider society; how practices designed to address menopause discrimination at work could be implemented; and whether legislation should require employers to put a menopause policy in place.