The menopause and the need for better legal recognition

Despite the menopause being a natural part of the ageing process for women, societal understanding of the condition and its symptoms remains limited. Typically, the menopause will start between 45 and 55 years of age, and can lead to symptoms including poor memory and concentration, brain fog, insomnia, erratic behaviour and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

And yet, in many workplaces and social circles, it continues to be a source of humour, with tongue-in-cheek references to hot flushes and forgetfulness trivialising what for some women is a debilitating health condition. But the impact of the menopause on women’s physical and mental health can be so severe that, in a recent survey of 3,800 UK women, 99% said they felt that their symptoms had negatively impacted their careers, with over a third saying the impact was significant. Nearly six in 10 took time off work as a result, and 18% were off for more than eight weeks.

The trend towards financial independence

According to the most recent ONS statistics, the average age for a woman to get divorced in England and Wales is now 45 – an age at which, as we have seen, many women begin to experience their first perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms. Given the evidence outlined above, one might expect a court to take this into account when looking at women’s earning potential and ongoing maintenance requirements during divorce proceedings.

A recent article published in the Law Society Gazette, however, would indicate that this is not the case. “Menopause or biology do not appear as factors to be considered by the court, although the court can take into account age and disability more generally,” concludes the author, Farhana Shardy, who has launched the Family Law Menopause project, which aims to ensure that divorce settlements adequately reflect the impact of the menopause on women’s ability to work.

An employment issue

And yet, if women feel unable to continue working due to the menopause, then surely this is a much wider legal issue with implications not only for Family Law, but also branching into Employment Law?

The Equality Act 2010 was designed to ensure that certain ‘protected characteristics’ (such as age, gender, sexuality or disability) did not impact an employee’s ability to work. Whilst it could be argued that the menopause is largely covered by protections against age, gender and disability-based discrimination, calls have been intensifying in recent years for the introduction of further measures, including a workplace menopause policy. In response to these calls, the Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry in July last year and published results of a survey of over 2,000 women on 25 February 2022. The findings revealed that there is still considerable stigma about talking about menopause at work and found that many respondents would like more support from their employers, including reasonable adjustments and greater flexibility, as well as the removal of stigma in the workplace.

Time to wake up

The impact of the menopause on women’s lives cannot continue to be ignored or be the subject of casual banter both at work and at home. Better awareness and education will go a long way to resolving many of the issues discussed in this article.

If you would like any further advice following this article, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Family or Employment team.

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