The Women and Equalities Committee are attempting to create legislative change to the Equality Act 2010 to include menopause as a protected characteristic. This change has the potential to further narrow the gender pay gap and allow women to progress their careers despite the challenges menopause can bring. In this article, I will discuss the merits of this change and how it could have positive impacts for women in the workplace.
What is a protected characteristic?
The Equality Act 2010 is the main source of discrimination law in the UK. It aims to protect employees from unfair treatment based on certain characteristics.
‘Protected characteristics’ are listed in section 4 of the Act and include ‘age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.’
These protected characteristics cannot be used as a basis in which to treat an employee a certain way, otherwise the employee might be able to claim discrimination against the employer. The Equality Act 2010 is supposed to ensure that employees are treated equally to those who do not possess these characteristics.
How can menopause impact women in the workplace?
Many women will experience menopause at some point in their lives. Menopause occurs when a woman stops having periods which usually happens between 45-55 years old. However, it can occur younger with some women experiencing early onset menopause.
Although menopause is natural, it can come with a range of uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms can include hot sweats; insomnia; anxiety and low mood; difficulties concentrating and with memory. Understandably these hormonal changes and symptoms can have a significant affect on a woman’s everyday life and work.
Managing symptoms at work can be a struggle for some women. This could potentially culminate in a lower quality of work or a higher number of sick days if not properly supported by the employer.
Women who are particularly struggling might seek treatment. The main treatment offered by GPs for women struggling with symptoms is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This replaces oestrogen and is administered either as tablets, gels or patches. However, there has been recent shortages of HRT medications due to rising demand as discussions broaden and GPs become more confident in prescribing. Drug companies have struggled to meet demand, leaving some women particularly impacted.
Women’s health and wellbeing has long been a taboo subject. For years there has been a lack of understanding of the symptoms and the potentially debilitating effects. Subsequently, many women have been discouraged to seek help and support from their employer. This has resulted in some women leaving professions. Although, we are seeing a shift in attitudes towards women’s issues and an encouraging acknowledgement of its affect on the workforce by employers.
The Women and Equalities Committee
The Women and Equalities Committee are concerned with ensuring equality and make recommendations to ensure Parliament commits to narrowing the gender pay gap. In 2021 they established an inquiry into adding menopause to the list and in July 2022, released their First Report of Session.
They found that currently, there is little protection for women who are treated unfairly due to menopause symptoms. The inquiry mentions that women who have previously made claims on this basis have attempted to claim disability discrimination however these claims have had limited success. Conflicting judgments from Employment Tribunals have caused concern. In Donnachie v Telent Technology Ltd hot flushes and lack of sleep could establish disability due to menopause however in Rooney v Leicester City Council, the claimant’s symptoms were not considered as such. The conflicting judgments convey the necessity of adding menopause as a protected characteristic.
How could this impact the gender pay gap? The gender pay gap could be significantly narrowed if legislative changes were made to the Equality Act 2010. Women experiencing menopause are often at the peak of their careers and as the retiring age increases the impacts of menopausal symptoms could affect the number of women in work. These women might prematurely scupper their potential and might miss out on promotional opportunities, positions of leadership and higher paid positions. This therefore perpetuates the gender pay gap as it significantly increases the discrepancy between women and men on boards and in leadership positions. There is a concerning lack of understanding from many employers towards menopause and this continues to be a factor perpetuating the gender pay gap. Reforming the Equality Act 2010 to include menopause as a protected characteristic would increase protection for those discriminated against by their employers. Furthermore, it would encourage employers to understand the symptoms and encourage them to put in place support and guidance for those struggling. This would create more comfortable workplaces, better quality work produced and retention of talent. Bibliography:
The Equality Act 2010, Section 4
Menopause and the Workplace Inquiry, Women and Equalities Committee <https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1416/menopause-and-the-workplace/>
‘Menopause and the Workplace’, First Report of Session 2022-23, 19th July 2022 <https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23281/documents/169819/default/>
Donnachie v Telent Technology Ltd 1300005/2020
Rooney v Leicester City Council 2600242/2019 and 2600243/2019
Year 3, Law LLB