Employers should not wait for a change in law to support women through a phase which may affect short-term performance just before their most productive years.
Last weekend I was lucky enough to visit the Barbara Hepworth ‘Art and Life’ exhibition at the Tate, St Ives. Regarded as one of the most significant sculptors of the 20th Century, I was already familiar with her highly distinct abstract works in stone, wood and bronze. But this was the first time I learned more about the woman herself. Born in 1903, her life and experiences as a working woman were as pioneering as her art, succeeding as she did in a male-dominated field.
As a young woman she struggled to be taken seriously and on her own terms. As a mother she had to grapple with combining childcare and work, often working late at night once her children were tucked up in bed.
What I found particularly striking was that just as she was getting into her stride in 1948 and starting to create work on a large scale, she ran into health problems. Although not understood at the time, this related to the onset of the menopause. It impacted her work. She wrote to her husband Ben Nicholson complaining of “feeling super tired… a fluctuating temperature and uncertain pulse. Even if I attempt to escape into work the condition worsens.”
It made me think about women today. No doubt Barbara Hepworth would be surprised that we were still debating how best to support women as they navigate this most predictable life stage.
It is true that there has been some progress, with more open conversations and medical advances, from which she would have undoubtedly benefitted. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if, like me, she would have felt there was something disheartening about the recent rejection of the proposal to make menopause a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act. A recommendation put forward by the cross-party Women and Equalities Committee in a report published in 2022.
The Government rejected the proposal warning of the “unintended consequences which may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, e.g. discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions.” So deep ran their concerns that even the suggestion to run a large-scale pilot of menopause leave was shelved and described as “unnecessary”.
As I listened to the announcement on the news, I groaned inwardly. Could this explanation be accepted at face value, or does it actually come from the ideology of a pro-Brexit Government instinctively allergic to advancing any form of workers’ rights?
One worker’s rights are not at another’s expense
A change in the law would have meant that employers had a statutory duty not to discriminate against anyone who was experiencing the menopause. Essentially, the Equality Act is about treating people fairly, and specifically states that it is unlawful to positively discriminate.
The idea that the menopause becoming a protected characteristic might, de facto, cause men suffering from long-term medical conditions to be discriminated against is difficult to comprehend. Nor have I read anything that explains such an assertion. Protecting one group of people doesn’t automatically trigger discrimination against another. And if that is a genuine concern, surely it reinforces the notion of doing an experiment with some progressive employers to test such a hypothesis.
A quick look at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) website demonstrates that the Equality Act already potentially covers the menopause in certain circumstances. They warn that “if an employee is put at a disadvantage or treated less favourably because of their menopause symptoms this could be discriminatory if connected to a protected characteristic such as age or disability”. The risk here is that going through the menopause is usually related to the age of the person and in some cases could be considered a disability. So, even without any changes to current equality legislation, some potential hazards already exist for employers who don’t take this subject seriously.
It is not in dispute that half the population will experience the menopause. Nor that every person will have a different experience in terms of timing, the range of symptoms and their severity. It is a natural part of getting older that usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55.
Given the variables, it is obvious that “menopause friendly” policies and approaches will need to be flexible, and tailored to the individual. That will only be possible if employees are emboldened to be open about their experience without fearing negative consequences. A change in the law would have offered that reassurance.
This year Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership (WACL) reached its 100th anniversary, and in spite of undoubted progress, its purpose to support women and drive gender equality remains as relevant as ever. Last year a private workshop was organised for members on the subject of menopause. I am 63-years-old — most definitely on the other side of the menopause pathway — and yet I found it a deeply moving experience. It was the very first time I had participated in such a conversation in a workplace-related setting. I remain part of a generation where, like Barbara Hepworth, we just tried to get on with it, whilst only confiding about our struggle to most trusted friends and family.
I recall the horrifying distraction of my internal temperature igniting like a kettle being put on to boil during an important presentation to the board. It was incredibly undermining, as I tried to respond to penetrating questions, wondering if my face was as red as my insides felt. I remember a week when I was inexplicably bleeding so heavily that I couldn’t stay in a meeting for longer than an hour without a visit to the bathroom to make sure nothing was visible on my clothes.
Empathy will help keep older women
These episodes undoubtedly affected my performance. And it is that awareness that we are below par that makes women feel vulnerable to potential discrimination and bias. Women who have already battled throughout their career to be taken seriously when they are in good health are not easily persuaded that they won’t face it again when their health is in question.
It would have helped me to have been through management training on the subject of menopause as we did on mental health. I would have been better equipped both in terms of what to expect for myself as well as members of my team. The existence of policies and formal training would have sent an important signal that this was a legitimate workplace topic to be concerned with. Men and women would have got used to talking about it together in a matter-of-fact way. And given we know the menopause can impact confidence as well as mental health, a proactive and positive attitude from well-trained managers is all the more vital.
The marketing industry has a skew towards the younger demographic with an average age of those working in it of 32. Nevertheless, and according to the All In Census 2021, women between the ages of 45-55 account for approximately 7.5% of the workforce (compared to 11.5% in the national working population). That represents a significant and growing number of people who will be experiencing menopausal symptoms and in need of support. There are also a disproportionate number of men and women aged under 45 who would benefit from better education on the topic.
I hope the majority of employers are not waiting for the law to change, but are inclined to show empathy to older women and support them through a phase which may affect their performance in the short term, but could be just before their most productive years. After all, just two years after complaining of her symptoms, Barbara Hepworth represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950, and went on to win the Grand Prix in the 1959 San Paulo Biennale.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.
Career Leaders: The Media Leader‘s weekly bulletin with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated about media careers, training, development and wellbeing.
Sign up for free to ensure you stay up to date every Tuesday.