On 28 February, the Women and Equalities select committee questioned Minister, Kemi Badenoch. It was her first appearance before the committee since she was appointed in October 2022. The session included an explosive exchange between Badenoch and committee member Carolyn Harris about the response of the government to the committee’s November 2022 report, Menopause and the workplace.
During the same week, Angela Rayner and Anneliese Dodds gave us the first signs of what a future Labour government would do. For International Women’s Day, we compare and contrast the way the two parties are approaching the issue.
Why does it matter?
There are 13 million women in the UK over the age of 45 and perhaps 3-4 million actively experiencing symptoms. These symptoms last on average from four to eight years but it’s not unusual for women to experience them for longer. Surveys vary but between two thirds and three quarters of women say that the menopause has had a severe impact on their lives.
The UK is the only G7 country whose economy is still smaller than it was before the pandemic. Since Covid, the over-50s have been leaving the workforce in droves – the so-called Silver Exodus. Ten percent of women aged 45-55 leave their workplace because of the misery they experience from their menopausal symptoms. Analysis from the Labour Party suggests that if women aged 50-64 had the same employment rate as before the pandemic, they could be contributing up to £7bn more to the UK economy.
The government is trying to attract the over-50s back into the work place. Surely it’s a no-brainer to support this group of around four million women to stay in work?
The current Women and Equalities Minister would seem to disagree.
Kemi versus the committee
The Women and Equalities select committee is made up of twelve MPs. Seven of them – including the chair, Caroline Nokes – come from the Conservative Party. In July 2022, the committee published Menopause and the workplace and in January of this year, the government responded to that report. The report made a number of recommendations, most of which the government rejected.
On 28 February, Women and Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, was questioned on the government’s response by the select committee.
Badenoch started by equating the idea of supporting menopausal women in the workplace to the idea of supporting people with ginger hair. She went on to make it clear that the government was not prepared to devote significant resources to the issue. She admitted that one of the few recommendations from the report that the government accepted (the creation of a menopause employment champion to encourage employers to do the right thing) was much cheaper than the implementation of actual policy, such as the introduction of a menopause leave pilot scheme.
As the exchange between Badenoch and Labour’s Carolyn Harris went on, Badenoch became increasingly hostile and shut down the discussion by accusing the (majority Conservative) committee of coming from a ‘left-wing perspective’.
It seems the menopause is woke. Who knew?
However, at the very end of the interview, Badenoch did make one statement with which we can whole-heartedly agree.
“I think women know exactly how committed I am to women’s rights.”
Very little help
The main treatment for menopausal symptoms is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) which may be needed for several years. In Scotland and Wales, HRT is exempt from prescription charges altogether. In England, the standard charge of £9.35 applies. In fact, progesterone and oestrogen are sometimes prescribed as two separate items, incurring two charges.
The select committee has been campaigning to exempt HRT from the prescription charge in England since 2021. The government has still not fully accepted that recommendation but in April, it will start to introduce a pre-payment certificate, which will allow women in England to pay one annual charge of £18.70.
The government has announced this development with its usual tantivy, but, as Harris notes, the idea that women’s health is a priority is almost laughable.
Over in the red corner
At the same time as Badenoch was locking horns with the select committee, two of the opposition’s most prominent women, Angela Rayner and Anneliese Dodds, were talking about Labour’s approach to supporting working menopausal women.
Rayner outlined Labour’s plans to support women to stay or return to the workforce. These plans take forward recommendations from the select committee report and are centered upon a requirement for companies to publish and implement a menopause action plan that sets out how they are supporting their employees experiencing menopausal symptoms. The party would release government guidance, advising employers on the best ways to help their employees.
Anneliese Dodds, meanwhile, used her speech to the Women’s Institute to launch what she calls a national conversation about how better to support midlife women. She says that their concerns often go unheard by government. They juggle work and child care (and may be looking after parents as well) while simultaneously being some of the most experienced workers.
Both Rayner and Dodds say that they will not dictate how businesses should write their menopause action plans. But Rayner suggests that the plans could include things like flexible working conditions and patterns, measures covering temperature control, or uniform alterations for women experiencing hot flushes.
While the proof of the pudding, as ever, will be in the eating, proper support for midlife women in the workplace looks like a win-win: good for women, good for business and good for the economy.