Other women may have been equally surprised by the realisation that menopause symptoms now amount to a “disability” – in the eyes of the law, at least. Even if, like me, you haven’t yet reached that time of life, the implications of a landmark employment case that started yesterday are clear: by virtue of their biology, all women are born with an essential fault or impairment – one that can, moving forward, prevent us from doing our jobs.
Even in America, the most legalistic land of all, there has never been a case like the one being brought against Leicester City Council by 52-year-old Maria Rooney. In what is also a legal first in Britain, the social worker is suing her former employer for allegedly ignoring her ill health and discriminating against her because of the menopausal symptoms she was suffering from – symptoms so severe together with stress and anxiety – she was forced to take periods of extended sick leave from her role in 2017 and 2018.
Supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Rooney will this week claim that the harassment, victimisation and unfavourable treatment she was allegedly subjected to while going through “the change” were unlawful. This comes after judges at a preliminary hearing ruled for the first time in Britain that those symptoms meant she was disabled.
On Sunday night the EHRC’s chairman, Baroness Falkner, stated that “menopause symptoms can significantly affect someone’s ability to work,” adding: “Employers have a responsibility to support employees going through the menopause – it is to their benefit to do so, and the benefit of the wider workforce. Every employer should take note of this hearing.”
All of this is true. Thanks to the hard work of menopause campaigners and high-profile women across the world – from Michelle Obama and Gwyneth Paltrow to Mariella Frostrup and Lorraine Kelly – speaking out about its symptoms, anxiety, sleeplessness, forgetfulness, headaches, palpitations, headaches and more, I find it hard to imagine that there is a man or woman out there who remains oblivious to the adverse issues prompted by hormonal changes in midlife.
Certainly, anyone still using the word “taboo” around the menopause now either needs to look up the meaning of the word or crawl out from the rock they’ve been living under for the past five years. This month is officially ‘Menopause Awareness Month’. We’ve got ‘World Menopause Awareness Day’ coming up on the 18th, specialists available on the NHS, helplines and a variety of menopausal medication, books, supplements and skincare ranges on offer. This “conversation” is being had.
That doesn’t mean that employers are being as supportive or progressive as they should be, however, and if Rooney was indeed discriminated against on health grounds, Leicester City Council should be held to account.
We’re all aware that economic inactivity in the 50-64-year-old demographic has risen sharply since the pandemic, with far more older women than men now out of the workforce, so that is just one reason why, as Baroness Falkner points out, companies should be doing all they can to help employees going through the menopause. But a disability?
Besides being an affront to those affected by lifelong disabilities, that one word risks undoing so much good work. Used in the wrong context, it risks taking us back decades, being abused by cynical opportunists, fuelling a victimhood epidemic that benefits no one and creating a greater stigma around women in the workforce. If the narrative catches on, it could even raise the glass ceiling women are close to breaking through in so many industries.
Think about how much smaller that word could make the working woman’s window for success. There we are, desperately trying to get back on the ladder after having had children, only to have a perceived inbuilt impediment waiting for us 15 or 20 years down the line. And that’s being generous, because according to the Equality Act, perimenopause could also be counted as a disability.
Yes, any woman severely impacted by the menopause deserves compassion, understanding and the usual legal protections given to those suffering from health issues of any kind, and yes, the law loves its labels and loopholes, not many of which translate into real life, but this one could so easily be used against us. If you’re still not convinced, just ask any menopausal woman how she would feel if a male boss or colleague branded her disabled? That’s a whole new tribunal, right there.