Just as pregnancy and maternity are expressly recognised as being worthy of protection under the Equality Act, the same should apply for menopause.
By Danielle Ayres, Employment Law Partner
Danielle specialises in cases involving discrimination in the workplace and has worked on a range of high-profile cases raising concerns over discrimination through pregnancy, maternity and gender.
How likely is it that menopause will become a protected characteristic?
“The fact that highly skilled and experienced women continue to be pushed out of the workplace due to a lack of support from employers is astounding in this day and age.
“Thankfully, it’s becoming more and more likely that we’ll see menopause become a protected characteristic at some point in the future. Although there have been discussions regarding many things becoming protected characteristics, the talk around menopause achieving such status seems to have gained more traction and momentum. There is certainly now more media attention and public openness about the symptoms and impact on women, which were largely unspoken about in the past.”
“Menopause is an issue that hasn’t been widely spoken about until recently, with other conditions, such as obesity, gaining more attention, certainly in terms of recognition as a protected characteristic. However, just as pregnancy and maternity are expressly recognised as being worthy of protection under the Equality Act, given that so many women suffer discrimination in the workplace as a result of having a baby, the same should apply for menopause.
“What’s more, despite often being thought of as an issue that solely affects older women, this isn’t necessarily the case. This presents even more of a case for the change to be made.”
What would happen if it did?
“If menopause were to become a protected characteristic, it would be hugely beneficial for women. Those suffering with severe symptoms would more readily be able to access the help and medical intervention that they need without fear of negative consequence or repercussions at work, or at least there would be greater protection and recourse available against intolerant employers.
“It would promote more open discussion between employee and employer, which could in turn lead to more allowances being made to assist them remaining in work whilst looking after themselves.
“It’s far too early to say exactly how the change might affect UK businesses as we’d need to know more about how the characteristic would be protected by legislation. For example, there’s no duty to make reasonable adjustments for any protected characteristic other than disability – who knows whether that will apply to those going through the menopause.
“My opinion is that it is likely to be treated in the same way and with the same protection afforded by the Equality Act as pregnancy/maternity. This would mean that an individual could not suffer detriment or unfavourable treatment on account of the impact of them going through the menopause.”
What would employers need to do?
“I would hope that employers will learn to reap the rewards from looking after staff who are suffering on account of the menopause. Just as we have seen with the impact of a positive approach to employees with other protected characteristics, employers are likely to generate greater loyalty and productivity through looking after staff in what might be their time of need.
“From a purely practical point of view, if the change comes, businesses will need to be more alive to menopause related symptoms and how they can support their employees. Contracts won’t need to be changed, but policies will need to be updated.
“Despite the likelihood of this change being implemented, its direct impact on the workplace won’t happen overnight. Changes to the Equality Act would take time, with the process involving many parliamentary stages. However, I certainly think that this is an issue that is not going to go away, and employers should keep a look out for developments in this area.”