Proposals to change UK legislation to protect the rights of women experiencing menopause have been in part rejected by the government due to fears such a move would discriminate against men.
The cross-party women and equalities committee last July published a report focusing on menopause and the workplace, which included a recommendation to make menopause a “protected characteristic” under the Equalities Act.
Protected characteristics are a specific set of characteristics that it is illegal to discriminate against, and include age, disability and race among others.
But in its official response to the report, published on Tuesday, the government rejected the proposal, warning of “unintended consequences which may inadvertently create new forms of discrimination, for example, discrimination risks towards men suffering from long-term medical conditions”.
In its response, the government also rejected calls for a large-scale pilot of menopause leave in England, adding it was not seen as “necessary” and could turn out to be “counterproductive”.
Reacting to the response, the committee chair and Conservative MP Caroline Nokes questioned the government’s commitment to the issue of menopause.
In a letter to the health minister Maria Caulfield, Nokes said she was disappointed that “very little new work has been committed to by thegovernment” in response to the committee’s report, as she expressed concern that the government had ignored what she termed the “significant evidence base” for menopause being seen as a “protected characteristic”.
Nokes, who in her letter to Caulfield noted that the reply to the report was three and a half months late, said it was a “missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce, and leaves me unconvinced that menopause is a government priority”.
“The evidence to our inquiry was crystal clear that urgent action was needed across healthcare and work settings to properly address women’s needs, yet government progress has been glacial and its response complacent,” she said in a statement.
“Its refusal to even consult on reforming equalities law doesn’t make sense and we urge it to look again.”
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise that the menopause can be a challenging time for women, which is why we have put women’s health at the top of the agenda as part of the first-ever women’s health strategy for England.
“We are implementing an ambitious programme of work with the NHS to improve menopause care so all women can access the support they need.
“We encourage employers to be compassionate and flexible to the needs of their employees, and are committed to supporting more flexible working patterns – having consulted on making flexible working the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”
The report comes as a poll suggests healthcare for women in the UK is as bad as Kazakhstan and worse than that provided in China. Britain ranked lower than the US, Australia, New Zealand, France and Germany in the 2021 Hologic Global Women’s Health Index.
Inadequate access to preventative care, such as screening for cancer, diabetes and blood pressure, diagnosis of causes of pain and mental health support were cited by analysts as behind the UK’s poor outcome.
The UK scored 60 out of 100 – three points less than the previous year – in the index, which is based on a survey of more than 127,000 people by Gallup. The score places it on a par with Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Kosovo, Poland and Ireland.