New menopause at work guidance has been appallingly misrepresented: Hannah Strawbridge

I’ve been shocked, frustrated, and disappointed, by recent media coverage of the European Commission for Human Rights’s guidance on menopause at work for employers.

I’m concerned about what’s been written in the national papers and the overly dramatic stance taken, riddled with factually untrue statements.

Contrary to what’s been reported, the new guidance focuses on how employers may support employees going through menopause and suffering side-effects of such. It talks about laws around disability discrimination and the law around employers making ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace. It also mentions sex and age discrimination.

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The right not to be discriminated against in the workplace in England and Wales, is set out in the Equality Act 2010, and I have not seen one article or TV interview by an employment law expert, on this. I have, however, seen countless influencers, doctors, writers, and life coaches commenting.

Hannah Strawbridge shares her expert insight. Picture: Kate Hollingsworth PhotographyHannah Strawbridge shares her expert insight. Picture: Kate Hollingsworth Photography
Hannah Strawbridge shares her expert insight. Picture: Kate Hollingsworth Photography

The front page of the features section in the Telegraph referred to it as ‘the new menopause legislation’ which is incorrect. There is no new legislation or law here whatsoever. The ECHR guidance simply explains the law as it has been for years.

It has also been reported that the ECHR is talking about menopause as a disability if it has a substantial and long-term impact on those who go through it – that is to say, every woman who lives long enough. What’s more, women going through menopause have been claiming disability and/or age and/or sex discrimination for years and we see these cases quite a lot.

It needs to be noted that this is the legal and technical definition of disability, which is not always easy to prove, and is very different from what a layperson might consider as a disability. Menopausal women will only succeed in showing they are disabled under the law if they can fulfill the definition. To succeed in a claim like this they would have to disclose medical evidence. Given that, we know there are lots of women still battling along without even seeing a doctor, so not every woman going through menopause will have a disability in law.

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The other point to note is that to be disabled in law, the person must also show that their employer ‘knew, or ought reasonably to have known’ that they have this condition. And many women we talk to still feel uncomfortable talking to their employer about menopause.

The paper goes on to say, ‘no one is allowed to be funny about menopause because that’s harassment’. This isn’t the case. The laws around discrimination at work protect people from being harassed on account of their protected condition, e.g. age, sex, disability, race, sexual orientation, and others. No one is talking about humour here.

Harassment is defined in law as being ‘unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant, or violating the complainant’s dignity’. We see plenty of examples of employees being harassed at work for all sorts of reasons, including women of a certain age, because of their menopausal symptoms. This guidance doesn’t mean that ‘having a joke about menopause is harassment’ at all.

The ECHR guidance offers nothing more than an explanation to employers of the law in this area, and what they might consider doing to protect themselves and support their employees. This is old news for most HR professionals, employment lawyers, and anyone trying to run a progressive organisation. It does not offer anything insightful or new.

The coverage of this so-called story, only really goes to show that women of a certain age still aren’t being taken seriously enough.

Hannah Strawbridge is Founder of Han Law Co

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