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Helen Hughes

Shakespeare Martineau

Legal Director

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Bridging the gap: Supporting menopausal women in the workplace

To mark World Menopause week, Helen Hughes offers actionable advice to HR professionals on supporting women experiencing the menopause.

The Women and Equalities Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into menopause discrimination in the workplace, with chair Caroline Nokes recently confirming she wouldn’t rule out changing equality laws to provide better protection for women.

Employment legal director and solicitor Helen Hughes, of Shakespeare Martineau, considers the broader impact the menopause may have on the retention of older female employees, the consequential result on the gender pay gap, and the actions HR professionals can take.

It’s a fact every woman will go through the menopause, and everyone’s symptoms will vary from difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and muscle and joint pain, to hot flushes and problems with concentration and memory.

Women will generally experience the menopause in their late 40s and early 50s, though premenopausal symptoms can start much earlier.

As a result, performance during their working life can be affected – with many women complaining of the impact it can have on their confidence in their roles – as well as relationships with colleagues and clients.

Assisting women to remain in work

Employers have typically been slow to recognise the issues faced by menopausal women and, as many women feel uncomfortable discussing it, it can be seen as a taboo subject.

However, acknowledging these difficulties and assisting women to remain in work in spite of them will be a significant factor in retaining female staff in this age bracket, which is vital in avoiding the loss of key skills and experience.

The documentary told countless stories of women feeling a need to step down from their senior roles or choosing not to take the step up into a more senior position in the first place.

Menopause and the gender pay gap

Menopausal women are the fastest growing group of workers. Currently, an estimated 4.3 million women fall into this category.

The Channel 4 Sex, Myths and the Menopause documentary with Davina McCall, which aired earlier this year, highlighted that nine out of 10 women felt the menopause had a negative impact on their working life. 

The documentary told countless stories of women feeling a need to step down from their senior roles or choosing not to take the step up into a more senior position in the first place.

Retaining women in senior positions

This lack of progression – or indeed the retention of women in senior positions – inevitably has an effect on the gender pay gap, which is at its greatest for those aged over 50, according to the Office for National Statistics.

With an ageing workforce, it’s easy to see how the impact of the menopause upon women of a certain age may have a bearing upon an organisation’s attempts to close the gender pay gap.

Changes to gender pay gap reporting

Due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, employers did not have to report their gender pay gap information for the financial year 2019/20, though many organisations chose to do so voluntarily.

The pandemic has also affected employers reporting the gender pay gap for the financial year 2020/21. Instead of publishing the information by 30 March 2021 for most public authority employers or 4 April 2021 for private, voluntary and all other public authority employers, all employers have instead had until 5 October to complete this.

Given the impact of the pandemic and the high use of furlough by a number of businesses, it is even more important for employers to explain changes to their gender pay gaps and what action they will be taking to close them.

Many women will feel uncomfortable going to their line manager, especially if it is a man, so other options should be available.

The actions HR professionals can take regarding the menopause and the gender pay gap

Employers and HR professionals can take a number of steps in this area to consider assisting employees who are experiencing the menopause, while simultaneously working to close the gender pay gap.

Using structured interviews for recruitment and promotions will reduce the impact of unconscious bias and allow responses to be easily compared. To help ensure fairness during the recruitment process, consider using skill-based assessment tasks by asking candidates to perform jobs they would be expected to carry out in their role.

Risk assessments should consider the specific needs of menopausal women and ensure the working environment will not make their symptoms worse.

Working arrangements should also be flexible enough to ensure they meet the requirements of menopausal women, who may need to leave suddenly or require more breaks during the day. Consider flexible working hours or shift changes; if sleep is disturbed, later start times might also be helpful.

Managers should carefully manage any drop in job performance or sickness absence caused by the menopause or perimenopause, ensuring that any such absences are recorded separately.

Women should also be given information on how they can get support for any issues resulting from the menopause. Many women will feel uncomfortable going to their line manager, especially if it is a man, so other options should be available.

To help reduce pay inequalities, transparency towards promotion, pay and reward processes should be introduced. Conducting pay equality audits will also allow discrepancies to be identified between employees of equal experience in similar roles.

Employers may also want to consider highlighting the menopause as part of a wider occupational health awareness campaign. This will indicate to staff that you are sensitive to the issue and that it’s not something they should feel embarrassed about.

Finally, it is sensible to introduce a clear policy that deals with menopause to give guidance on how to address any issues that may arise and encourage open and sensitive conversations. Use of adjustments where appropriate will also be welcomed by employees experiencing negative impacts of the menopause.

Tackling the barriers

With an increase in conversations around the menopause, there comes a greater awareness and less tolerance by employees for accepting the status quo.

More employees are looking to manage their symptoms with the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and other remedies, and tribunals are starting to see more litigation related to the menopause on the grounds of gender, age or disability discrimination.

Employers, along with HR professionals, should be considering how they can intervene to tackle barriers to progression and support women through this transition – not just to mitigate legal risk but to aid retention of experienced and skilled female staff, assist with the closing of the gender pay gap and, increasingly, because it is the right thing to do.

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Helen Hughes

Legal Director

Read more from Helen Hughes

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