Let’s talk about the menopause

There is an ongoing debate in the UK about the menopause and how this can impact on working women. According to the Office for National Statistics the proportion of employed women aged between 50 and 64 is increasing. This has brought into focus the need for employers to think about supporting employees experiencing menopause symptoms in the workplace. Menopause symptoms vary significantly: most women experience some symptoms and, in some cases these can be severe. The menopause is a very good example where age and sex intersect and potentially lead to women being discriminated in the workplace. In the UK there have been a few Employment Tribunal cases where women suffering severe menopausal symptoms, have been unfairly dismissed on the grounds of poor work performance, with no consideration being given to their menopausal symptoms and how these affected their work performance. 

Does the law need to be changed to protect menopausal women from discrimination?

MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Women and Equalities has launched an inquiry into discrimination in the workplace linked to the menopause https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/aug/18/equality-laws-could-be-changed-to-protect-women-in-menopause-says-mp . This inquiry will consider whether changes to the UK equality law may be needed to protect women against discrimination. The UK Equality Act (2010) identifies nine characteristics which are afforded legal protection and there is discussion as to whether the menopause should become a legally protected characteristic similarly to pregnancy and maternity. 

However, it would be wrong to think that working women experiencing menopausal symptoms are not protected under the current UK and EU equality legislation. Any less favourable treatment, that they may receive in the workplace as a result of their menopausal condition, could amount to either direct or indirect sex and age discrimination or, in some cases of severe symptoms, to disability discrimination. For example, a woman who is denied promotion on the grounds that her work performance is being affected by menopausal symptoms would amount to direct discrimination. In contrast, an example of indirect discrimination could be denying a menopausal employee a request to work flexibly because no other employee works flexibly. An employer’s refusal to accommodate such request, unless objectively justified, could disproportionately disadvantage menopausal employees who would find it difficult to conform with lack of flexibility in working practices and, indirectly discriminate against them. Often what menopausal women need is just some accommodation, such as access to flexible working, more frequent breaks or being in a well-ventilated office. Thus, it is important for employers to understand how some working practices that apply to all employees may impact negatively on menopausal  women and be prepared to remove such disadvantage.  

What are employers doing? 

Several sectors spanning financial services, hospitality, leisure and travel, health and higher education, have commissioned research and developed recommendations for employers to support women during this phase of their life. A report about Women in Financial Services (https://wp.financialservicesskills.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Menopause-in-the-Workplace-Impact-on-Women-in-Financial-Services.pdf ) has highlighted that trans men can also experience menopausal symptoms, and that it is important to end the culture of silence about this subject. It has also warned that the sector risks losing talented women whose menopausal symptoms may hold them back from career progression. While a report from the Hospitality, Travel and Leisure Industry (2021) warns about menopausal symptoms being misunderstood and perceived as a performance issue (https://www.wihtl.com/research ). 

In the Higher Education sector, Advance-HE, has produced a helpful guidance to support Higher Education Institution employers to support menopausal employees (Brewis, 2019). This guidance highlights that women comprise 54.4% of the workforce in the HE sector and that a significant proportion of them 25.4% are aged between 46-55 which equates to 59,260 of women employed by the sector. This is also an age group where many women will be ready to advance in more senior roles where, by and large, they continue to be under-represented. Therefore, there is a compelling case to ensure that women are well supported in the workplace to maintain high levels of performance and job satisfaction and progress their careers. 

Recommendations for practical interventions from these reports include: provide information about the menopause and coping at work, organise networks and peer support, train managers on how best to support menopausal employees and provide access to flexible working. 

What we are doing at Oxford Brookes University 

Oxford Brookes University employs approximately 2,250 paid staff of whom, 61% identify as female, 68% of that group being over 40.  This means that Oxford Brookes University is on-trend in terms of the nature of its workforce and its exposure to similar challenges when it comes to raising awareness about menopause and supporting those experiencing symptoms that affect their working life.

As part of a recent Athena Swan survey, staff were asked for the first time specifically about menopause (to what extent they felt allowance were being made for colleagues who were affected by the menopause).  There was a lower response rate than the average for that particular question, suggesting that respondents did not know enough to respond or did not feel the question was relevant to them, and those that did respond indicated a negative view, suggesting that they did not feel enough allowance was being made currently.    

The Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, in its Athena Swan related work, has set objectives that include a focus on menopause.  In order to make an impact in this area, a subgroup of the Athena Swan team are working on an awareness-raising campaign and the development of peer support networks (Chat Room and Menopause Café) and events to highlight how leaders, managers and the whole Oxford Brookes University community can adapt their approaches and influence changes in the working environment to better support those experiencing or affected in any way, by menopause.

The work that began at Faculty level in Health and Life Sciences, is now being shared around the wider University; in particular we are currently working on;

  • A ‘Whole University’ Menopause Event – ‘Continuing the Dialogue Across the Organisation and Beyond’ 
  • Expanding the Chat Forum (Google Meet Room)
  • Expanding the Menopause Café
  • Further Development of Web Information Pages 
  • Production of an Infographic and Poster Campaign
  • HR Policy Work

If anyone is interested in learning more about the work currently underway, you can contact Jill Childs or Maxine Fletcher in HLS.

By Professor Simonetta Manfredi (smanfredi@brookes.ac.uk), Jill Childs  (jchilds@brookes.ac.uk) and Maxine Fletcher (mfletcher@brookes.ac.uk)

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez in Unsplash

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