For Humdinger Limited, a Yorkshire supplier of fruit and nut snacks, one woman’s decision to undo her top button was, it seemed, a step too far.
The middle-aged employee had informed managers on their Hull production line that she was suffering from menopausal hot flushes, causing her to sweat and become dizzy.
Yet the altercation which followed when Albina Solokova loosened her overalls ended up in a tribunal - becoming one in a wave of cases hitting Britain’s courts.
The word “menopause” was mentioned 207 times in employment tribunals in England and Wales last year - up 75 per cent on the 118 mentions the previous year, research shows.
Overall, the total number of tribunals relating to such matters has tripled in two years, as women took legal action - claiming unfair dismissal, disability or sex discrimination, with regard to the way their employers handled their menopause.
In some respects the trends reflect a major shift in public attitudes, and a willingness to be open about something which was once taboo. But they also reflect a growing impatience that women’s health has too often been marginalised, with problems ignored until they reach a state of crisis.
Shortages of HRT are a case in point.
Demand for hormone therapies has dramatically increased in recent years, with a doubling in the number of monthly prescriptions issued in the last five years.
Much of it comes down to the “Davina effect” - with women increasingly coming forward to seek help for menopausal symptoms after celebrities including Davina McCall went public about their own struggles.
Meanwhile, manufacturers have failed to keep up with demand, with manufacturing and supply problems fuelling such shortages that the Health Secretary has been forced to set up an HRT taskforce and introduce rationing measures.
Dee Murray, founder of Menopause Experts Group, which provides information on how to manage symptoms, says that for too long, menopausal women have been the “butt of people’s jokes” - especially in the workplace.
“A lot of this is about changing the culture. It’s all very sexist in the way that we used to hear, ‘what’s the matter with you, are you premenstrual?’ if women are seen as being a bit stroppy - it’s often the same with the menopause.”
Companies need to do far more to respond to the needs of mid-life women, she says.
“Sometimes it’s about just being able to know they can have a day working from home, so that if they have a hot flush, no-one is going to take the mickey out of them. If they are suffering heavy bleeding or flooding, that they can just deal with it, rather than having it happen in the workplace where the embarrassment is insufferable.”
Ms Murray sees “a real movement” going on within many companies as rising numbers of middle-aged women take on their bosses, seeking adjustments to help them cope with symptoms.
Now some are going further.
‘Employers are starting to get the message’
The group’s analysis of employment tribunal cases over the past five years shows that the menopause was cited just seven times in 2017. By last year, that figure reached 207.
Ms Murray said: “Employers are starting to get the message about menopause in the workplace, but the growing number of employment tribunals in this area show that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Too many policies aren’t taking women’s needs into account, and more and more employees are showing that they are happy to stand up for themselves.”
Ms Solokova is one such woman. The Latvian-born production line worker claimed for unfair dismissal, direct race discrimination and indirect sex and race discrimination. She won the race case, which centred on the decision of her Hull employer to introduce a new policy of only speaking English in the workplace. But she was less successful in arguing against the way Humdinger Ltd handled her menopausal symptoms - which reached a flashpoint in 2020 when she was reprimanded for opening the top button of her regulation overalls.
Disagreements continued, with promises made to obtain extra fans, culminating in a much-disputed incident in which the worker raised a protection screen, in order to get more air, only for it to be pushed back - causing it to almost strike her face.
Last June, the tribunal dismissed the company’s claims that the requirement to wear a buttoned-up garment was no worse for women than men, ruling that the policy had left Ms Solokova subject to disadvantage during her hot flushes. However, the jury ruled that wearing of buttoned-up overalls was still required on health and safety grounds, suggesting the company should have ensured the worker had priority access to an electric fan.
Anne-Marie McMahon, 49, from Swinton, in Salford, brought a claim of disability discrimination and sex discrimination after she was dismissed by her employers, a firm of solicitors, in 2019.
The mother-of-two said that at first she had tried to hide the symptoms of menopause, which left her with “brain fog”, hot flushes and gynaecological problems, resulting in a number of absences, and later attempts to make up her hours.
When she finally told employers at Rothwell & Evans solicitors about her problems, they thanked her for making them aware but remarked that it was a case of “too much information”, a tribunal heard.
However, the judge dismissed the claims, saying many of the absences did not relate to menopausal symptoms.
Ms McMahon, who started out in the firm’s typing pool of the firm, but had started a conveyancing apprenticeship, said her experiences left her determined to do more to ensure women’s voices are heard.
To that end, she has just completed a degree in law at Salford University.
“After all of this, I would say to women they must speak up. This is something that should be recognised, most women will go through this, it’s the natural course of life and for some women, it can be very debilitating,” she said.
“We are seeing some changes in attitudes now, but I think this is something that should be recognised as a protected characteristic, in the same way that sexual orientation is.”
Findings of Commons inquiry due soon
The Commons’ women and equality committee is soon expected to publish the findings of its inquiry into menopause and the workplace.
Adam Pavey, an employment lawyer, hopes to see some firm recommendations to improve the way employers handle their responsibilities.
Currently those turning to tribunals to argue menopause cases can attempt to do so on grounds of sex or disability discrimination.
But many argue that the lack of clarity in this area is one of the reasons cases are often lost
However, Mr Pavey isn’t sure that making menopause a protected characteristic - in the same way that age, disability and sexual orientation are - is the way forward.
“It is difficult to enforce and monitor, so the committee could push for a requirement that all employers have a menopause policy or a code of conduct, and increase penalties for firms that do not comply,” he said.
Meanwhile the topic has been pushed firmly up ministers’ to-do lists.
Sajid Javid, Health Secretary, says he is on a “mission” to improve the experiences of menopausal women.
On Friday night he urged employers to do more to ensure female employees get backing when they need it.
Mr Javid said: “We know that menopause can affect all women differently – but for some its symptoms can be debilitating and this can make women’s daily lives challenging, impacting them whilst at work.
“The NHS offers great advice for anyone going through the menopause, but it’s crucial women also feel confident asking for support at work too.”
“I know the important role women play in the workplace and their health is a priority for this Government - that’s why we will publish the first ever government-led Women’s Health Strategy later this year, to level up women’s health,” he said.