“The government’s exclusion of menopause leave proves it’s already failing disabled women”

Written by Rachel Charlton-Dailey

“I am in the midst of menopause at 33, thanks to a hysterectomy in 2017,” writes Rachel Charlton-Dailey. “I also live with chronic conditions, which menopause has made worse. Disabled women like me need greater protections at work.”

Recently, the government dismissed a recommendation to make menopause a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and rejected an order to introduce ‘menopause leave’ pilots in England.

Among the reasons given for this block, was that the decision that menopause leave would be “counterproductive” and could have “unintended consequences which may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, for example, discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions or eroding existing protections”.

That’s right: women were denied protections such as job security while going through menopause because it might discriminate against men. If we somehow look past the rampant misogyny here, it’s overlooking one important thing: men with long-term health conditions are already supposedly protected under the Equality Act. 

As it stands, disability is a protected characteristic of the Equality Act, which states that someone must not be discriminated against because of their disability or because they are perceived to be disabled. The definition, again with outdated language, lists “physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.

The act also covers workplace adjustments and details disabled people’s rights to adaptations in the workplace. It states: “Your employer has a duty to take steps to remove, reduce or prevent the obstacles you face as a disabled worker or job applicant, where it’s reasonable to do so.” It also informs disabled people that needing adjustments “isn’t a valid reason for your employer to dismiss you or not promote you if you’re the best person for the job with the adjustments in place”. 

If the Equality Act were doing its job, menopause leave and protections wouldn’t be seen as a threat. The government’s block, as a result, just proves that it’s already failing disabled women.  

Despite the reasonable adjustments guidelines being in place, they’re not a requirement; in many cases, people are kept out of work purely because the government hasn’t provided the assistance it should have in this process. It was revealed last month that 25,289 people were being kept out of work while still waiting for a decision on their Access to Work claim. Some have waited over a year.

On top of that, disabled people on average earn much less and are in much fewer positions of power. The TUC estimated that the disability pay gap stands at over £3,700 a year, which means disabled people essential work for free from 7 November each year. Disabled workers make up 16% of all workers, but only 12% of managers, directors and senior officials.  

The disability pay gap widens even further for disabled women, whose average hourly pay is £11.93. That’s £3.93 less than a non-disabled man, who earns £15.25 an hour on average. This adds up to £7,144 a year less.

Disabled people are also twice as likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people with 6.8% of disabled people being out of work compared to 3.3% of non-disabled. For women, these figures are 5.8% for disabled women and 3.3% for non-disabled.

The reasons so many disabled people are unemployed or paid a lot less include discrimination, barriers to employment, a lack of access to flexible working, negative attitudes toward disabled people and employers failing to provide reasonable adjustments.  

Disabled women are already at a disadvantage at work. Then you add perimenopause to the mix. 

A British Menopause Society study found that 45% of women felt their menopause symptoms had a negative impact on their work. Meanwhile, the TUC found that nine out of 10 workers felt that menopause affected their working life.

The TUC also found that managers rarely received training in how to better work with people going through menopause, so many just didn’t have the knowledge. This meant some women were disciplined for issues such as memory problems or being unable to carry out tasks when they would’ve been solved with simple adjustments to working conditions. 

There’s a lack of research on how menopause affects women with chronic conditions and disabilities, but many women report that menopause makes their conditions worse. This has definitely been the case for me.

I am in the midst of menopause at 33, thanks to a hysterectomy in 2017 and having my ovaries removed in 2021 to treat endometriosis. I also live with chronic conditions including endometriosis, osteoporosis, lupus and arthritis, which menopause has made worse.   

As well as regular menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes and memory problems, I go through periods of being exhausted all the time. It’s taken a toll on my body, the pain and fatigue leading to me to start using a walker to get around. Menopause has also caused flares in my lupus and arthritis.

Before menopause as a disabled woman, I already experienced workplace discrimination. The reason I’m a freelancer is that most companies in my field are deeply set on work being in the office with long hours, which chronic fatigue and fluctuating conditions make impossible for me. 

Menopause has meant that I’ve had to change the way I work even more. Fatigue has led to my hours being even further reduced and I have to take more days off to recover if I’ve been travelling for work. I also sometimes can’t use my hands due to the arthritis pain, while endometriosis and hip pain mean I work from bed more often than at a desk. 

Without a doubt, though, the thing that’s been most affected is my memory. Living with chronic conditions means I already experienced brain fog but the ‘menopause brain’ is on another level. Things just fall out of my mind and I often struggle to remember tasks if I don’t immediately do them. 

I didn’t expect menopause would impact my dyspraxia, too. In the last two years, I’ve felt judgment from people as I struggle to understand instructions and my organisation slips. I’ve often been told I come across as rude, because my neurodiversity makes me more blunt – but you’d be blunt too if you were constantly misunderstood.  

Because so many symptoms of my conditions and menopause overlap it’s not always possible to know which is making which worse, but either way, the combination of menopause and disability has certainly made life harder.  

I’ve never been ashamed to talk about my disabilities at work and do so in order to normalise discussions, but I don’t actively talk about menopause with employers for fear that they’ll judge me. 

This is why it’s so important that menopausal people are protected so that they can talk about their condition without shame and get the help they sorely need when they’re already falling through the cracks.

“The government had an exciting opportunity to innovate and tackle the very real issue of women being forced out of the workplace early.” says former deputy leader of the Women’s Equality Party Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, who is also a disability activist and GP .

“If they were genuinely concerned about the plight of those with long-term conditions, then they should look at improving employment conditions for this group through strengthening the Equality Act and not play one disadvantaged group against another in the interests of not having to bother helping anyone.”

If the government can say with a straight face that introducing one thing into its own act would discriminate against another set of protected people, it’s practically admitting that the Equality Act needs to be better.

Specific laws are needed to help disabled people in work and in other areas of life, and these – together with the laws that already exist – need to actually be enforced, with penalties for companies and businesses that don’t follow the law.

Not only does this decision need to be rethought, but The Equality Act needs to be reformed to ensure that it properly protects all the people it’s supposed to. That way, no new introductions, such as the vital protections for menopausal women, would threaten anyone. 

Main image: Getty

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