Blog: Menopause – the last workplace taboo?

Recently I was invited to be a panel member for a World Menopause Day event, hosted by Women of a Certain Stage, looking at how women undergoing the menopause are treated in the workplace. My role was to speak about the employment law elements of this subject.  In preparing for the session I trawled through my 20+ years’ experience as an employment lawyer as well as some good old-fashioned rummaging in the text books.

To say I came up with very little is an understatement. The menopause barely features as an accepted employment law topic (in fact I found more about ‘allowing your employees to watch the World Cup’!) and I could only find two Employment Tribunal cases (none in the EAT or above) which looked at this. Also, I added my own experience, which was I have NEVER been asked to advise on this topic.

This is surprising, no? Every woman in the workplace will experience the menopause at some stage and its effects, lasting over several years, can range from mild to extreme. I found myself questioning why so little is said about it.  I raised this at the conference. The clear impression I took away was that for the majority of women this was something too personal to raise at work.  If they did, there was no obvious support available to them. One delegate confided to me that she hadn’t even told colleagues she was attending the menopause event as she didn’t want to be labelled  as ‘over the hill’ in her workplace.

Thinking back I couldn’t recall ever being asked to advise where an employee was going through the menopause. However I’ve often advised (and usually do settlement agreements for) companies with a female employee no longer ‘cutting it’ or who had become ‘difficult to work with’. It was my ‘ah ha!’ moment. It does go on – we just sweep it under the carpet (aka a ‘settlement agreement’).

I am certainly not going to blame women who chose not to scream from the rooftops – ‘I’m in the middle of my menopause’. This is a deeply personal topic and it is more than just the biological end to a woman’s reproductive years – but can also mean so much more. Society has been guilty of confining menopausal and post-menopausal women to the scrap heap and the menopause can often coincide with a woman’s children growing up and leaving home. Women should be bouncing around enjoy the ‘Summer’ of their careers, no longer bound by their children’s schedules – so why is it that so many aren’t?

It feels as though there is a second glass ceiling here. We already have one ceiling for the countless women who drop out of the workplace following the birth of the children. I can see another where women experiencing the menopause choose to leave the workplace rather than have to live out their symptoms in front of colleagues. Why are talented women being helped out of the workplace usually at the prime of their careers?

Lots to think about here. In my next blog I will be looking at the employment law aspects of menopause in the workplace and what employers can do to make themselves ‘meno-friendly’ (© Anne-Marie Boyle).

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Anne-Marie Boyle
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