Kemi Badenoch has refused to accept the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendations to reduce discrimination against women going through the menopause.
Speaking to the cross-party group of MPs in parliament yesterday, Badenoch, the appointed women and equalities minister, said that the government would not be adding menopause as a protected characteristic to the Equality Act 2010. Doing so would make it illegal to discriminate against someone because of the menopause.
She also rejected a suggestion to start a trial of menopause leave, which would give women paid leave from work, separate from sick leave.
[See also: Menopause support is woefully inadequate, we need action now]
What does the Equality Act 2010 currently protect?
The Equality Act has nine protected characteristics, meaning it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of these factors. They are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.
Committees and campaign groups have often called on government to consider extending the list. Helen Walker, chief executive of the charity Carers UK, has told Spotlight that being a carer should become a protected characteristic, while the psychologists’ industry body, the British Psychological Society has campaigned to include social class.
What did Badenoch say regarding adding menopause to the act?
Badenoch said that the government would not be adding any new protected characteristics to the Equality Act, on the basis that the government could not add every trait that has been suggested.
She also rejected the committee’s proposal to undertake a public consultation on the matter, saying that many people wanted to use the act as a “tool for different interests”, which is “not what it’s there for”, adding that it was a “tool for anti-discrimination”.
“We have all sorts of things that people ask for as protected characteristics,” she said. “Carers, single people, having ginger hair, being short. Creating a new special characteristic for the menopause is a complete misunderstanding of what protected characteristics are. They are immutable characteristics.”
Pregnancy and maternity, however, which are included in the act, despite these not being permanent characteristics. Badenoch said that menopause could be dealt with across age, sex and disability instead, and that creating a new characteristic would involve a lengthy legal process.
Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East and a campaigner for menopause rights, argued that this stance was unhelpful because the act allows an individual to bring a discrimination case on multiple characteristics, but not to combine them. Badenoch responded that cases could be looked at “in parallel”.
[See also: On the menopause, the government is insulting women with its lack of action]
What difficulties do menopausal women face in the workplace?
According to research from Channel 4 and the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity, which polled 4,000 women aged 45-55, one in ten women leave the workforce because of menopause symptoms. Nearly one in seven had reduced their hours at work, while nearly two thirds (61 per cent) said they had lost motivation at work, and half (52 per cent) said they had lost confidence.
Another study of 2,161 people from the Women and Equalities Committee has found that less than a third of respondents who experience menopause told anyone at work, most often because of privacy, followed by concerns over people’s reactions. When women did tell their colleagues, a significant number felt unsupported, and only 12 per cent of respondents to the survey sought any workplace adjustments. Research commissioned by the Government Equalities Office in 2017 found that “the menopause is not well understood or provided for in workplace cultures, policies and training”.
What about menopause leave?
Badenoch rejected the committee’s proposal for a government-led menopause leave pilot, which would entitle women to paid leave similar to maternity leave. She told MPs that the government did not need to carry out a pilot study and that employers could do this of their own volition.
Badenoch highlighted that the Department for Work and Pensions is establishing “menopause employment champions”. According to the government, these will be appointed by the minister for employment to “give a voice to menopausal women, [promote] their economic contribution, and [work] with employers to keep people experiencing menopause symptoms in work and progressing”.
What has the shadow cabinet said?
Last week Labour pledged to make it mandatory for large companies to publish and implement a “menopause action plan”, which would set out how they are supporting employees going through the menopause. The party would also release government guidance to advise employers on how best to support employees.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said the policy was a “simple and effective way” to “improve productivity, keep more people in work and ultimately grow our economy for all”.
Where can I read more?
Read the Women and Equalities Committee’s report into menopause and the workplace here.
Read more about the Equality Act 2010 here.
Read more about protected characteristics here.
[See also: Why a menopause tsar won’t solve the HRT crisis]