Menopause and employment: Why it's time to have that conversation

We're very much at the awareness raising stage in New Zealand, many other parts of the world are ahead of us by a few years

Menopause and employment: Why it's time to have that conversation

There are 42 symptoms of menopause – that’s 42 different ways in which a woman going through menopause can be adversely affected while she is potentially participating in the workforce – a workforce, that in New Zealand, hasn’t formally recognised those symptoms in employment law – symptoms that range from mild, to debilitating enough to force some women out of the workforce.

“More of us [women] are in the workforce than ever before, more women are in leadership roles, more women are integral to the economic sustainability and wellbeing of their homes, families, and communities and need to be in employment. So, there are a whole lot of reasons we can't have women opting out, because they don't understand what's happening to them or they're tired, or unsupported at home or at work,” said Kate Billing, founder and creative director at Blacksmith HQ, a human-centred leadership practice.

Billing is on a mission to change workplace attitudes to menopause. Under the hashtag #menopauseintheworkplace, she founded LinkedIn group “Menopause Awareness and Action Community” and runs a web series called "Pause for Thought” that educates people about menopause. Recently, Billing was joined by Anthony Harper employment lawyers, Giuliana Petronelli and Kathryn McKinney to discuss menopause in the workplace.

Read more: Should you consider a ‘menopause policy’ at work?

As far as Billing is aware, Anthony Harper is the only law firm in New Zealand being vocal and visible with their clients around the topic of menopause. “They’re also looking at it internally,” said Billing. “They’re not thinking this could be an opportunity; they’re beginning the internal conversations themselves.”

It was a courageous manager at Anthony Harper law firm that started the conversation with the CEO. The CEO quickly recognised the importance of having a wider conversation about menopause, across the whole firm.

Before this conversation started, “I can honestly say I was uneducated about the menopause, specifically how it impacts on employment and employment rights, and your ability to continue your career throughout” said Kathryn McKinney, partner at Anthony Harper and at age 50, is primely centred for the life change.

“Education is a big part of it,” said Billing. “We’re very much at the awareness raising stage in New Zealand, many other parts of the world are ahead of us by a few years. Educating your people, so that they can have a new level of awareness and permission to have a conversation – because it's a highly stigmatized thing in our society. There’s a lot tied up around both ageism and the potential for yet another kind of discrimination against women.”

There is legislation (health and safety and anti-discrimination legislation) that protects women experiencing menopause but there is nothing specific to menopause despite the human rights act specifically touching on things like pregnancy, and maternity related discrimination.

Read more: Future Super introduces menstrual and menopause leave

“I think that our legislation as it stands, is a starting point but it could do better,” explained McKinney. “So, if someone were to assert their rights around being discriminated against in relation to being menopausal, we don’t know if they would be successful, and that seems like a gaping hole really.”

“The risks for business arise around not treating people fairly and not treating people with good faith – which of course is an overarching employment obligation – and not being mindful enough of health and safety, including mental health and safety,” said McKinney.

While there has been no specific case law around menopause in New Zealand, a UK judge recently awarded a woman the equivalent of $40,000 NZD because an employer made derogatory comments about what he perceived as her behaviours and how they may or may not have been related to her stage of life.

“He basically said, you’re behaving like this because your menopausal,” said McKinney. “The courts in the UK are alive to this so we can expect this to land on our shores and the fact that we’re having these conversations means that it’s more likely.”

“As a business owner, or one of the leadership team you have a leadership opportunity to create the conditions for people to feel safe to raise any issue or challenge,” said Billing.

“Look at what you've already got and think how can we overtly add to it in an above the line way,” said Giuliana Petronelli, associate at Anthony Harper.

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