Insights Victory for menopause awareness: landmark cases highlight risks of menopause discrimination

The menopause affects all women at some stage in their careers but it is rarely discussed openly. It is a natural biological process, but it can bring with it a range of challenging physical and emotional symptoms, with some women experiencing particularly severe health difficulties. Unfortunately, the menopause is a topic that has often been stigmatised or dismissed. Two recent cases involving Maria Rooney and Karen Farquharson provide evidence of this from an employment perspective and shed light on the challenges faced by women dealing with menopause symptoms in the workplace.

Maria Rooney: pioneering the menopause equality movement

Ms Rooney was a dedicated social worker working for Leicester City Council. During 2017 and 2018, she found herself not only dealing with work-related stress and anxiety but also the physical and emotional effects of the menopause. Despite seeking support and understanding from her employer, she felt that she encountered a lack of compassion and awareness which led to her taking periods of extended sick leave. Ms Rooney, to her surprise given the circumstances, received a formal warning from the council for her absences.

Ms Rooney decided to ultimately resign from her job and filed a claim against the council. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognised the gravity of Ms Rooney’s situation and rallied behind her. At a preliminary hearing in February 2022, the Employment Tribunal ruled that Ms Rooney’s menopause symptoms, combined with stress and anxiety, constituted a disability under the Equality Act. This ruling has created a legal precedent, marking the first time in England that menopause symptoms have been recognised as potentially constituting a disability.

The Leicester Employment Tribunal are now hearing Ms Rooney’s claims of discrimination, harassment, and victimisation on the grounds of disability and sex in an expected sixteen day hearing. We will provide an update on the outcome of this case once a decision is announced.

Karen Farquharson: challenging workplace ignorance

The case with Ms Farquharson shares similarities to that of Ms Rooney. She informed her employer, Thistle Marine, about her menopausal symptoms in August 2021. Ms Farquharson had worked as an office manager for Thistle Marine for 27 years. Her boss, Jim Clark, who the tribunal described as a ‘blunt, self-made man’, displayed a lack of understanding and empathy, dismissing her symptoms as mere ‘aches and pains’.

Ms Farquharson’s case came to a head when she had to work from home for two days in December 2022 due to her symptoms and challenging weather conditions. When she returned to the office, Mr Clark greeted her sarcastically, implying that her absence was unwarranted. This incident, along with Mr Clark’s subsequent dismissal of her menopausal symptoms, was regarded by Ms Farquharson as deeply upsetting and discriminatory.

Ms Farquharson decided to act and launched a grievance about the ‘disdain and disgust’ she had faced from her employer. However, shortly after filing the grievance, she discovered her remote access to the company accounts system had been removed, effectively forcing her to resign as she was unable to work from home. Ms Farquharson issued proceedings for unfair ‘constructive’ dismissal and harassment on the grounds of sex in the Employment Tribunal.

Ms Farquharson’s claims were upheld, and she was awarded £37,000. The panel concluded that Jim Clark, while a successful businessman, lacked empathy for those who faced challenges different from his own. His comments to Ms Farquharson violated her dignity and therefore constituted harassment on the grounds of sex.

Maria Rooney’s and Karen Farquharson’s victories could prove to be a wake-up call for employers, as well as society at large. The menopause is a natural phase in a woman’s life, and it should clearly not be met with discrimination, harassment, or ignorance.

These cases highlight the importance of raising awareness about menopause in the workplace and having proper polices in place. Employers should consider providing training to both their employees and managers to foster an understanding of the physical and emotional challenges caused by the menopause. This will hopefully reduce the misconceptions and biases that surround the topic and promote a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Diane Danzebrink of the Menopause Support network has suggested that there’s a pressing need for national menopause workplace guidance and a public health campaign centred around menopause.  Perhaps it’s no surprise therefore that we’ve had a number of menopause related instructions from clients recently and would strongly recommend a review of internal policies to ensure they include provisions related to menopause and any reasonable accommodations that might be required such as flexible work arrangements.

Although applicable to the employee-employer relationship in general, employers should be keen to foster an environment that enables employees to speak freely about their health concerns, knowing that they’ll be met with empathy, respect and inclusivity, rather than ‘disdain and disregard’ or lack of compassion as Ms Farquharson and Ms Rooney appeared to experience.

Given our focus on the creative and technology sectors, the outlook of our clients thankfully tends to be progressive and many of our clients are already addressing such issues and putting in place dedicated menopause policies. If this is something that you would like help with, please do get in touch!