Changing equality legislation to protect women going through the menopause should “not be ruled” out, according to the chair of a group of MPs leading an inquiry into discrimination on the issue.
Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities committee, said the inquiry had heard from women who have suffered discrimination in the workplace and have been forced to use disability legislation to seek redress in the courts.
The inquiry will look at whether equality law needs to be strengthened and if the menopause should be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, which states that it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
“One of the key messages coming through is that people don’t feel that they’ve got adequate recourse to tribunals, because they think the legislation isn’t clear enough,” Nokes said. “We are hearing too many stories of people finding the most convenient mechanism to bring a claim for disability discrimination – the menopause isn’t a disability.
“If the current legislation is working then great, but if it’s not working, and we’ve made maternity a protected characteristic, then do we need to look at making the menopause a protected characteristic? The jury’s still very much still out on that [but] I really don’t rule it out.”
Nokes added that she had been struck by the number of individual women who had contacted the inquiry to share their experiences, and warned businesses that if they did not take action to help menopausal workers they risked losing talent and productivity.
A growing number of women were determined to break the “last taboo” around menopause and fight for better treatment in the workplace and better health provision, reflected in the growing number of women taking their employers to court citing the menopause as proof of unfair dismissal and direct sex discrimination, she said.
“It feels like suddenly the conversation is opening up and it’s OK to talk about the challenges that we’re facing,” she said. “Women of my age are not prepared to sit in the corner and shut up about it, and are refusing to be treated badly at work and marginalised because of something that they have no control over – we can’t afford to lose all those experienced, talented women from the workplace.”
Women – and male allies – were coming together across the political divide, said Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East and deputy leader of Welsh Labour, who has launched a private member’s bill which, if successful, would exempt hormone replacement therapy (HRT) from NHS prescription charges in England, as is the case in Wales and Scotland, where all prescriptions are free.
“The suffering has gone on for long enough, and now that women have now found their voice, by God they are willing to use it, and they have become warriors,” she said. “Women and men alike are on a mission to make sure that no woman needs to suffer because of lack of information, resource or lack of support.”
Nokes added that the term menopausal was still too often used as an insult or as a way to describe something that was sluggish, including by a senior civil servant in her presence.
“We’ve suddenly all become incredibly determined to make sure that it isn’t a term of ridicule and derision; that it is recognised as a real physical, mental and emotional condition that is holding women back at work,” she said. “If companies want to retain experienced, qualified staff they need to make it easier to have those conversations, so that reasonable adjustments can be made.”
She credited celebrities with increasing awareness of menopause discrimination, with Davina McCall and Lorraine Kelly among those backing a public awareness campaign by The Menopause Charity in recent weeks.
McCall, who has written a book called Menopausing, revealed that she had been advised not to talk about her symptoms, which began when she was 44, but decided she was not “going to be ashamed about a transition that half the population goes through”.
Harris said that a generation of women had “been let down, ignored or simply thrown on the scrap heap as a result of the menopause” for too long and the subject remained “one of the last great taboos” which was badly funded and poorly understood.
“We intend to change things for the better – the revolution is marching on,” she said.