In a Women and Equalities Select Committee discussion about the menopause at work government representatives preferred to focus on best practice and health rather than drop-out rates and discrimination.
The Government held firm against trialling menopause leave and adding menopause as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act in a Women and Equalities Select Committee session on the menopause and work yesterday, preferring to focus on making the business case for retaining women, best practice and support for women’s health.
Maria Caulfield, Minister for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy and Minister for Women, Department for Health and Social Care, was asked three times by Labour’s Carolyn Harris if she agreed with comments made to the committee by Kemi Badenoch. minister for women and equalities, that equated menopause with people with ginger hair and short people. Badenoch had told the Committee in March: “Creating a special characteristic for the menopause misunderstands what the Equality Act is for.” She added that people wanted to use the Equality Act for lots of different interests. For instance, she said people were petitioning to have ginger hair, different accents or height considered protected characteristics.
Caulfield said Badenoch’s comments had been taken out of context and were not meant to be dismissive. She referred instead to what the Government is doing on women’s health and said this is the first UK government to have a women’s health strategy.
In addition to a women’s health portal being launched in July which aims to be a one-stop shop for women’s health across their life course, Caulfield said the Government is investing 25 million pounds in women’s health hubs. Some are already up and running and integrated care boards across the country will get their share of the money in the next weeks. They have a minimum outline for what they need to provide, but can tailor it to local needs. GPs are also being given training and 50+ champions will be working with work coaches in Job Centre Pluses to tackle problems such as women dropping out of the workforce due to the menopause.
Mims Davies Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression, was asked whether it was right that women who had lost their jobs due to the menopause were having to take out tribunal cases under disability discrimination legislation and concerns were raised at the low level of cases being taken out compared to the high numbers of women leaving the workplace due to the menopause. She said that more work was needed to show the benefits of helping women to reach their potential and that conversations were being had about the issue, but no answers had been found yet. “Watch this space,” she added before emphasising that her role was to get women into work and support them to keep working.
Caulfield added that the focus was more on setting standards for what women should expect and what is expected of employers and making the business case for retaining women.
Davies cited the economic case for more support, saying the inactivity rate for women aged 50 to 64 is 32.1% compared to an average of 25% for all working age women. With female employment rising and over 50 year olds the fastest growing group of workers, she stated that there would be a growing number of working women experiencing the menopause.
Other issues raised in the session included menopause leave. Davies said employers could provide menopause leave, but the Government preferred to focus on providing flexible working and health support to women so that they don’t need to drop out or take leave. “If people are looking to leave the workplace we have failed,” she said, adding that if, further down the road after other approaches had been tried, it became clear that there is a need for menopause leave then there may be scope for trialling menopause leave.
Helen Tomlinson, the Government’s voluntary menopause employment champion since March whose paid job is as Head of Talent at Adecco, spoke about how she is holding a cross-sector roundtable in July followed by sector-based working groups – focused on hospitality, retail, manufacturing, adult care and professional and technical work – to share sector specific best practice and to set the ball rolling for other sectors. She is also keen to get men involved in conversations about the menopause. Harris made the point that having a paid champion might give a stronger message that the Government is taking menopause seriously. The Government argued that there was an advantage of having someone who is embedded in the workplace and that there are precedents for similar voluntary roles.