This week the Government dismissed the opportunity to implement the recommendations of a report by the Women and Equalities Committee aimed at improving the work and health outcomes for menopausal women. The recommendations of that Committee included the introduction of menopausal leave pilots and also making the menopause a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act. Instead, on the issue of menopause leave the Government intends to encourage employers to implement their own policies, and its overall position in response to the report was condemned by the Committee’s chairman Caroline Nokes as a “a missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce”.

As a woman of a certain age and a family lawyer, I have a vested interest in this issue being taken seriously across the board. According to the Law Society the first woman became a solicitor in 1922 and today women make up 53% of the profession in England and Wales. A survey conducted by IPSOS Mori for the British Menopause Society, found that more than a third of respondents said their menopause had impacted their work life.  

There has recently been a slew of articles and surveys dealing with the impact of menopause/perimenopause on various aspects of women’s lives. From statistics illustrating which symptoms affect women the most (spoiler alert: it’s not just about the hot flushes), to the impact of those symptoms on women in the workplace, there is now so much more information available about something which affects us all.

Whether we are women undergoing “the change”, or friends and family standing by in sometimes dumbstruck horror at a loved one suffering so, we will all benefit from understanding a great deal more about this subject.

My interest in this topic however extends beyond what is on my own horizon and relates to my job as a family lawyer. I have always prided myself on my empathy, the support I provide my clients, and my ability to guide them through the process of separating and all that goes with it. Accordingly, I think it will be very helpful to clients specifically to consider the possible effect of the menopause.

Whether advising a wife whose low mood, depression or anxiety leads her to exit an unhappy marriage, or the husband who feels cut adrift by his wife’s low sex drive and the lack of intimacy that this can lead to, the impact of whether the menopause has played a part in the situation they find themselves has not been considered by the parties themselves or indeed myself as their lawyer.

I conducted a straw poll amongst my colleagues and found that most of them suffered from the same blind spot. We are not the only ones. Therefore the call to action for all family lawyers to have training surrounding the issue of menopause is incredibly important.

Some impressive work has been done by the Family Law Menopause Project and Newson Health Research and Education in surveying 1,000 women on the topic. The findings make for sober reading:

  • 73% blamed the menopause for the breakdown of their marriage;
  • 67% reported an increase in domestic abuse and arguments;
  • 86% did not raise the issue of menopause in any of their discussions with their family lawyer and, worse from my perspective, 97% said that their family lawyer did not raise the issue of menopause/perimenopause in discussions with them.

So why does this matter?

At the risk of overloading you with statistics, here are some more:

  • Menopause usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55. Perimenopause is the period beforehand which can itself span years;
  • According to a survey by the Fawcett Society, there were over 5,000,000 women aged 45 to 55 in the UK in 2020;
  • Those aged 45 to 49 have the most divorces. The average age for divorce is 46.4 for men and 43.9 for women;
  • 90% of women get menopausal symptoms and, on average, symptoms last 4 to 8 years;
  • There are more than 30 recognised symptoms amongst which are brain fog, anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping or exhaustion, mood swings, low sex drive, and of course hot flushes;
  • 3 in 4 women will experience symptoms, and 1 in 4 women will experience debilitating symptoms;
  • The Fawcett Society survey shows that 1 in 10 women who worked during the menopause have left a job due to their symptoms, 61% said that they had lost motivation at work due to their symptoms, 52% had lost confidence, 14% had reduced their hours at work, and 8% had not applied for promotion.

A few things come into sharp focus.

Women are divorcing in greater numbers at a time when it is likely that they are either perimenopausal or menopausal. Life changing decisions are being made when women are juggling the unholy trinity of menopause, the end of a marriage, and important decisions relating to their finances and/or the arrangements for their children. Women’s role in the workplace is also adversely affected – they are leaving jobs, struggling to hold them down or progress within them due to their symptoms, perhaps having already taken a hit on their career advancement by virtue of bringing up the children.

This is all hugely relevant to the work of family lawyers and the courts.

So what can we do?

For one thing, when we are meeting our clients for the first time we might be able to shed some light on what might be the root cause of the marital strain. I am not so naïve as to think that menopause is the sole cause of marital breakdown, and some things simply cannot be fixed especially if the divide between the parties is already too wide. We can however stand back from what our clients are telling us and explore with them whether the menopause is having an impact on what they are living through. If it has not gone too far, might some therapy help them to work through this period? As lawyers we do always discuss with our clients whether a reconciliation may be possible but it might be more crucial than ever to consider the impact of the menopause and whether this might be a factor in the breakdown of the relationship. We should never, however, entertain the view that a woman who wishes to divorce should be disempowered by the suggestion that as a result of the menopause she does not know her own mind.

We should all be more mindful of the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. If 3 out of 4 women experience them, and 1 in 4 women find them debilitating, this is having a very real and significant effect on women’s ability to think clearly during proceedings, make difficult decisions, and to cope with the emotional stresses and strains of the work that we are doing with them.

Not only must we exercise patience and be acutely aware of what our clients are going through, but we should also consider adapting how we communicate and take instructions. We should always find out from our clients what they need from us – for example, do they prefer telephone calls or emails? What can they digest better and/or find less intrusive or stressful? What cuts through that brain fog?

Of wider import is the impact on women’s ability to work whilst suffering from menopausal symptoms. Matrimonial courts look towards a financial clean break where possible, expecting wives to achieve financial independence and to maximise their earning capacity. This means that spousal maintenance is only like to be ordered for a relatively short term, effectively to enable wives to get back on their working feet. Where does this leave a woman who is about to enter or is already undergoing menopause?

The Fawcett Society survey illustrates the negative effect that symptoms can have on a woman’s ability to work and to advance her career. The Family Law Menopause Project is casting light on this very important issue, and on the potential for women to be left financially worse off in financial settlements when consideration is not given to the true nature of their earning capacity and indeed their ability to accrue pension for retirement.

There is no doubt that for many the topic of the menopause is an awkward one to raise. But if we are going to serve our clients as best we can, we must overcome any embarrassment, educate ourselves, and tackle it head on.