When the government response to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on menopause and the workplace finally appeared this week, millions of women across the country let out a collective sigh of disappointment.
Once again, when handed the opportunity to prioritise this area of women’s health, the government has held back, largely failed to commit to anything new and left women feeling undervalued and disrespected.
Among the recommendations in the report was a call to make menopause a protected characteristic. In the workplace this would mean that women would no longer be discriminated against because of their menopausal symptoms. It would, I suspect, be instrumental in keeping women in full-time work and encouraging them to apply for promotions. With recent research finding that one in ten women leave their jobs and a further 14 per cent reduce their hours, this could have been a vital move that would help employers retain loyal and experienced staff.
The government rejected the recommendation. In among their reasons behind the decision was an explanation that will have left women, already disappointed by the decision, feeling completely let down. The report explains that one of the deciding factors for rejecting this proposal was the possible unintended consequence of inadvertently creating new forms of discrimination, such as discrimination towards men suffering long-term medical conditions.
While I completely agree that men – or indeed women – who are suffering any health issues should not be victimised, to use the potential impact on men as a reason not to make a change that could improve the lives of millions of women is both upsetting and insulting.
The government also rejected a recommendation to begin a pilot scheme for menopause leave. I regularly hear from women facing disciplinary action because they have exceeded the sick leave that their employer deems acceptable. This proposal was intended to afford women and business owners greater protections. Running it as a pilot would have given the government an opportunity to gauge its suitability and success before deciding whether it would be viable. But it was rejected. The government is unwilling to even try something that could dramatically improve levels of retention of menopausal women in the workplace.
In October 2021, following the second reading in parliament of my private member’s bill on menopause services and support, I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism that the government was finally listening. Its commitment to introducing an annual hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prepayment certificate for women in England and to form a UK-wide Menopause Taskforce bringing together parliamentarians, clinicians and experts had me feeling that we were on track for the change many of us had long been calling for.
I distinctly remember the cheers of jubilant voices as we filled Parliament Square to celebrate. Menopausal women were finally being given the support and respect they deserved – and it felt wonderful.
Over the last fifteen months, that balloon of optimism has slowly deflated. The prepayment certificate is still not available. When it is introduced in April, we have no idea which products will be eligible to be included on it. The taskforce has met only twice, the last time in June 2022, and its impact has been negligible. And now the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendations have been largely rejected.
There is setback after setback but we cannot give up. Thirteen million menopausal women in the UK deserve more, and we will keep on fighting for every one of them.
[See also: The women who shaped modernism]