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Equity v Equality: The Case of Menopause as a Protected Characteristic

At the beginning of the year, the Government issued their response to a legislation change that was proposed in July 2022 by a cross party committee on Women and Equalities, rejecting the notion that Menopause be included as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This was a devastating outcome. Menopause is the process that those who menstruate go through where they transition from experiencing monthly menstruations to no longer having them, as a result of a reduced levels of estrogen. This process can take between 4 to 10 years, with the average age of the onset of menopause being between 45 and 55 years of age. Those that experience menopause usually undergo a range of side effects such as issues with body temperature regulation, hormonal imbalance, anxiety, migraines, tinnitus, hair loss, joint stiffness and heart palpitations, to name a few. These side effects consequently mean that many who experience menopause struggle to remain within the workforce during their menopause, often opting to work part time or take early retirement. This results in a loss of experienced cisgender female individuals within the workforce at the higher levels.


...workers who require more support to be successful will likely suffer due to the removal of support systems needed to enable diverse groups of workers to thrive in a ableist, heteronormative, racially hierarchical climate.

The key reason that the Government has provided for rejecting this legislative change was the potential for discrimination against cis-gender males who are suffering from long term health issues if menopause was included as a protected characteristic, within the Equality Act. Whilst there could be room to argue such a case, it is important to note that cis-gender male individuals are already benefiting from a patriarchal society, with those who experience menopause being seen as expendable from the workforce, with their pain being seen as tolerable. In the recently published cross-party report “[add title], a suggestion was made that workplaces be encouraged to enact ‘Menopause Leave’, which offers workers who experience menopause the opportunity to take supported leave from their workplaces. This recommendation was also rejected. The Government stated that sanctioning such leave would be counterproductive within the workplace. Instead of accommodating workers who go through menopause to have time away from the workplace whilst they are experiencing significant discomfort and pain, the government is asking they work through the pain, or leave the workforce, both of which options significantly disempower women in the workplace.


Perhaps it is time that this majority cisgender male government, which claims it is the most equal and diverse government in the history of the UK, reconsiders whether they truly are the best people to decide what equality and diversity is for our country.

The rejection of this legislation change shows that the UK Government, an entity which is a cis-gender male majority, values equity over equality. This means that instead of affording people from a range of backgrounds the support that they need to access the same opportunities, such as making sure a building is accessible or removing a gender pay gap, the UK Government wants everyone to be treated identically. Whilst in theory this may be an appealing option, it actually is a stab at the heart of the meaning of equity, as workers who require more support to be successful will likely suffer due to the removal of support systems needed to enable diverse groups of workers to thrive in a ableist, heteronormative, racially hierarchical climate. No doubt, already marginalised groups of workers such as disabled, members of the LGBTQIA+ community or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), will be disproportionately impacted by the erosion and/or removal of such systems of support.


By treating people equally, the UK Government would instead recognise that some individuals are inherently disadvantaged due to their identities, and therefore need institutional support to be afforded the same opportunities as their peers. In rejecting this legislational change on the grounds of potential discrimination against cis-gender males with long term medical conditions, the UK Government are positing a model where equity is superior to equality. This sets a dangerous precedent, as , communities who are already disadvantaged and discriminated against, are further squeezed out of legal protection if they experience menopause.


Such a precedent also creates hierarchies within the workplace based on deserving v undeserving criteria, with implications of directing workplace investment away from those who experience symptoms relating to menopause. Perhaps even more dangerously, this approach further entrenches the concept of ableism in workplace culture and organisation, where health complications of any nature are treated as insignificant. It is perhaps not a surprise that such approaches have reduced the UK’s global standing in workplace rights. For example, the UK dropped three points in the 2021 Hologic Global Women’s Health Index, a global rank for women’s health, receiving a ranking of 60/100. . This is clear evidence of that the health of those that menstruate and experience menopause within the UK is lower than that of many of it’s peer countries including nations such as China and Saudi Arabia who are known to have poor record of women’s and human rights.


Perhaps it is time that this majority cisgender male government, which claims it is the most equal and diverse government in the history of the UK, reconsiders whether they truly are the best people to decide what equality and diversity is for our country.


For those who are interested in our work, and other identity characteristics that we propose be included in the Equality Act 2010, please see our report ‘Equality Act Review: 12 Years on’.


N.B. The term women is used when referring to documentation that includes the term women. We use it here with the inclusion of all those who will experience menopause, regardless of their gender identity.


Resources


NHS (2023) ‘Symptoms - Menopause’. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/symptoms/


Hologic (2023). ‘Women’s Health Index’. Available at: https://hologic.womenshealthindex.com/en


The Guardian (2023) ‘UK menopause law change rejected as it ‘could discriminate against men’’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/jan/24/menopause-law-equalities-act-uk-change-rejected


Women’s Health (2023) ‘Menopause law change rejected by government as it could 'discriminate against men'’. Available at: https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/health/a42632768/menopause-support-rejected-government/


Women and Equalities Committee (2022) ‘Menopause and the Workplace’. Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/328/women-and-equalities-committee/publications/



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