Like many other fashionable causes, tackling menopause began as a necessary response to a genuine issue. But as with many other campaigns du jour it has morphed into the latest opportunity for the politically correct to virtue signal or grab favourable headlines.
For evidence, look no further than this recent quote from Cleo Madeleine of Gendered Intelligence, who warned 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’.
I’m not relishing the thought of menopause any more than younger men will look forward to prostate examinations. Among the grim array of side effects are hot flushes, an inability to concentrate, sleep issues and weight gain. And for too long, it has been taboo, with women feeling they must suffer silently through it.
With this in mind, the Women and Equalities Committee’s commitment towards improving support for menopausal women is welcome. But by focusing on women in the workplace, chair Caroline Nokes MP and her fellow committee members are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Their report, which was published last year but received a government response just last week, features a strange hodgepodge of recommendations that underscore a depressing truth in British politics: that parliamentarians now believe there is no societal ill which cannot be fixed with yet more labour market regulation. But menopause is far less an issue for employers than it is for our healthcare system.
For decades, the NHS has misunderstood women. We are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed following a heart attack, yet made up just 25% of participants across 31 landmark trials for congestive heart failure between 1987 and 2012. Endometriosis takes an average of eight years to diagnose. Maternity scandals across NHS Trusts are emerging with shameful regularity and it was reported in December that gynaecology waiting times in England had tripled in the past decade.
The news that women’s healthcare in the UK is worse than in some countries with far poorer records on inequality was wearyingly predictable. A survey of more than 125,000 people put the UK on a par with Kazakhstan, Slovenia and Kosovo.
This is the issue which needs resolving: how do we treat women better, including those going through menopause? Instead, the committee is zoning in on how but we ‘protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce’. Among the suggestions were a call for menopause to become a protected characteristic, and for ‘menopause leave’ to be trialled in the public sector.
On the first point, menopause is already covered by three of the nine protected characteristics included in the Equality Act: gender, age and disability. The ‘gender reassignment’ characteristic could make four. It doesn’t need its own specific category, and employers don’t need further legislation to ensure they make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to accommodate women’s needs. We are thankfully at – or close to – the point where employees can talk about menopause and approach HR about any changes in hours, uniform or restroom access if needed.
And, as the recent case featuring a female banker who attempted to sue her employer after colleagues nicknamed her ‘Christine Lagarde’ – a reference to her greying hair – showed, the sums that could be involved if ‘discrimination’ is found to be at play are huge. The banker lost her £4.6m claim, but for any business the employment tribunal can feel like a roll of the dice. Many will choose to settle out of court to avoid negative attention. In time, some employers will find it easier simply to write off women over a certain age.
Kudos, therefore, to the Government for rejecting this recommendation, even if for the absurd reason that it might create new forms of discrimination, including ‘towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions’. Nor will menopause leave be piloted.
Naturally, the Committee is dismayed, and Nokes protests that the refusal to consult on reforming equalities law ‘doesn’t make sense’. But a cursory glance at the report shows it relies too heavily on survey data that lacks any real detail. That 99% of respondents told the committee they suffered at least one menopause symptom isn’t altogether surprising when it is something all women experience. The report flags that 14m working days are lost per year, in terms of time spent alleviating menopause symptoms – yet argues that a ‘large public sector’ employer should pilot ‘specific leave’.
It’s curious that the committee regards higher labour market participation among older women as a problem that government needs to fix rather than a positive development. There are currently around 4.5m women aged 50-64 in employment, and women are staying in work for longer. This may mean that more women are working while experiencing menopause, but it also means that many older workers are re-entering or remaining in the workplace, at a time when government is in such a flap about the ‘great retirement’ that at one point it was apparently considering cutting income tax for the over-50s.
So surely we should welcome progress, provide better healthcare (which could include one of the other committee recommendations, that menopause be part of a GPs ongoing professional development), push back against this incessant need to legislate for everything, and remind ourselves that there’s more to being a woman than biological experiences.
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