Written evidence from Women’s Business Council [MEW0063]

 

The Women’s Business Council

The Women’s Business Council was set up in 2012, as a business-led and government-backed initiative to support women’s economic empowerment. It was refreshed in 2019 with a focus on increasing opportunities for women in the sectors where it will have the most impact. The Council is chaired by Fiona Dawson, formerly Global President at Mars, now a board member at Marks & Spencer and Lego and a trustee of the Social Mobility Foundation. Members of the Women’s Business Council are senior business leaders from: construction, retail, tech and the finance and insurance sectors. The Council also has members leading work on small and medium enterprises.

Submission from Fiona Dawson, Chair of the Women’s Business Council

I am writing to the Committee in my role as Chair of the Women’s Business Council (WBC) about the Council’s consideration of the impact of menopause transition on women in the workplace.

As an independent Advisory Group to government, the WBC has been tasked with advising Ministers on fairer and more inclusive workplaces and has a long history of championing the needs of mid-life women at work through a dedicated Action Group focussed specifically at “Staying On”. We recognise that this is a particularly complex period of many women’s lives as they start their families later, retire when they are older, care for ageing parents and dependents who often live longer at a time when many move into leadership positions. The care requirements and career demands are often delivered against a backdrop of significant physical change, about which relatively little is still known.

Menopause transition, although a key feature of women’s reproductive life cycle, has until recently been a largely taboo subject. This has significantly hindered understanding of its impact on women and the circumstances which can exacerbate or help alleviate symptoms.

Our initial report to the Government published in 2013, contained a recommendation to appoint an Older Workers Champion. This enabled the WBC’s Action Group to start an important dialogue between women and employers and we are pleased to see that progress has since been made. The WBC considered the GEO’s evidence review of menopause in the workplace in 2017 and we would like to commend Ministers for Women for acknowledging and addressing the important evidence gap in this area at that time.

The review revealed a lack of data and public understanding relating to the menopause. This was consistent with the intelligence gathered at WBC roundtables and bilateral meetings with leading HR professionals in large UK companies, policy makers, informed commentators and numerous women. We were particularly grateful for the pioneering work which was undertaken by Baroness Altmann– in her role as Older Workers Champion – with whom the WBC collaborated to raise early awareness of the impact of menopause on women in the workplace. 

As business leaders, many of us have experienced some form of, at best, misunderstanding and ignorance about the menopause and, at worst, poor behaviours in the workplace. It became clear that women across all levels of an organisation, including senior leadership positions, have endured ill-effects in silence for fear of ridicule and stigmatisation at critical times in their careers. This affects not just the women themselves, but the economy as some decide to step away at a time when they are most productive.

Our ethos here has been clear: advocate best practice for inclusive working environments; use our extensive business networks to bring about a positive change in policies; showcase authentic role models and leadership in this field; create toolkits by the business community, for the business community - to provide practical support; and, critically, be prepared to walk the talk ourselves at senior executive level to stimulate an honest dialogue to accelerate change from the very top of organisations.  We must normalise the language around menopause, and crush the stigma.

The Council’s work in this area has included a toolkit, developed with business to provide an agile set of tools, guidelines and best practices for business leaders, managers and HR professionals. This provided insights on how to optimise attracting, recruiting and retaining older workers, with a focus on supporting female talent during the stages of menopause.

Examples of work taken forward by members include a dedicated intranet area; a menopause health assessment through a health provider; and, a dedicated team partnering with Occupational Health and Wellbeing to equip impacted employees and their line managers. This has included hosting panel and webinar events where medical facts, practical advice in the workplace and real-life experiences are presented using humour to educate and support. Menopause guidelines have also been published to ensure that staff feel like they can openly discuss what is often a sensitive topic. More widely, there is general awareness-raising about resources and individuals who can be contacted for help and guidance, including external speakers, films and posters.  All companies who have introduced such initiatives report significant benefits both for productivity and engagement, not just for the affected employees but the wider workforce.

We are aware that the need for policies to accommodate older female workers through the menopause are not only vital to empower women to participate and progress in work, but also to support them to secure their longer term financial future. This is because the menopause often occurs at a time when many women need to work, not only for living, but also to make up pension contribution gaps following years of reduced income due to family caring. Reduced pension contributions can leave many women dependent on partners in later life.

To illustrate this, a study by researchers at the University of Manchester and the Pensions Advisory Group using ONS data has suggested that for those in their late 60s, first time married men’s median private pension wealth is on average, approximately nine times greater than first time married women's (£261k versus £28k). In the same age group, divorced non-cohabiting women's median private pensions’ wealth is just £31k[1] and we know the percentage of opposite sex divorces where the woman is in her 50s has increased between 2000 and 2017.[2] So it is pleasing to note that there is work to increase the number of returnship opportunities, particularly for older women. 

It is encouraging to see that a number of insurers have announced menopause policies for employees and some now offer specific menopause support as part of healthcare protections or a standalone product. It is also good to see that insurers are starting to look at inclusion through both lenses - employee and customer - which we know is encouraged through the ‘Insuring Women’s Futures’ initiative.

We are delighted that the menopause is now being considered more widely and debated openly, throughout the media and in Parliament. What became evident from the first roundtable with the Minister for Women, Health Ministers and the Chief Medical Officer some years ago, was the need for better advice and guidance, and the curiosity of many men who wanted to know more about menopause transition in order to help their partners and to be better managers within the workplace. Often referred to as “the last taboo”, this issue has created a culture of misunderstanding and unnecessary secrecy, so we support greater dialogue in this area.

As we move to more tolerant and inclusive workplaces, we are keen that all organisations  - from the large Corporates to SMEs – consider mid-life working women in policy design and do not inadvertently stray into the field of gendered ageism. It is worth mentioning that some women transition into menopause at a much younger age (below 40) and it is important to understand their particular requirements. We would like to see more awareness of this cohort of women.

There are a number of areas where the Council considers employers can do more and I would like to take the opportunity to highlight these. Going forward, we believe it is important to properly test and evaluate interventions to identify those that are the most effective.

Good diversity and inclusion training covering gender and age, and the menopause specifically, is particularly important to dispel a number of myths.  For line managers – who are critical to the success of culture change - this training could include awareness that treating the issue with dignity and respect is paramount. Specifically it could include sensitivity and listening skills, reasonable adjustments, the need to change working habits to manage symptoms or because of them, and how to take into account the effects of menopause transition in performance reviews.

We believe that campaigns could increase awareness of the issues women may face and challenge stereotypes. However, we are clear that the narrative needs to be handled sensitively, to prevent women’s hard won gains on representation and progression within the workplace being undermined. It is important that we continue to utilise the considerable talents and potential of women across the UK.

If occupational health is available and there is a need and consent from women to use it, an option is for line managers to refer women in transition to receive medical check-ups and advice. Workplace counsellors can support women, including by providing information and support, advising them on how best to process symptoms, and providing expertise on diet, exercise and techniques to alleviate discomfort.

Absence policies should be changed to record absences due to menopause transition in a way that distinguishes them from other absences. Informal support such as well-being and women’s workplace networks, should also be championed.

Online discussion forums and helplines can be set up. The Government’s 2017 Research highlighted the extensive range of symptoms many women face and it is important to note here that there is not a one size fits all solution.

We are pleased that the Women and Equalities Select Committee is looking at this important issue and have urged our networks and individual women to contribute their thoughts and ideas to the consultation on the Women’s Health Strategy that is currently calling for evidence. We believe this is timely to shape the debate about menopause and the whole of women’s reproductive life cycle and its impact in the workplace.

The Women’s Business Council would like to thank previous Chairs of the Council, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith and Dame Cilla Snowball who have shown an unstinting commitment to improving the lives of mid-life working women to enable everyone to meet their full potential and ensure financial resilience prior to retirement. We would particularly like to thank Lynne Atkins, formerly at Barclays (and Deputy Chair of the Council) who has been fearless in championing this issue at a time when it was not commonplace for senior women in the workplace to share experiences.

To conclude, we very much welcome this inquiry called by the Women and Equalities Select Committee and the Council is happy to offer its support with any recommendations.

 

September 2021

 

 


[1] Jennifer Buckley and Debora Price, Pensions on divorce: where now, what next? 2021, Child and Family Law Quarterly, Vol 33, No 1.

[2] ONS dataset Divorces in England and Wales: 2019 (released 17 November 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/datasets/divorcesinenglandandwales