Should women be given paid leave because they’re suffering from period pain? The lower house of parliament in Rome is discussing a draft law at the moment. If all goes to plan, Italy can become the first country in Europe to offer women three days of paid menstrual leave a month.
‘We also have carer’s leave and maternity leave. Why not menstrual leave?’
The idea isn’t new. A few months ago the Dutch Peter de Vroed of Men-struatie started a petition asking the Dutch government attention for this issue, with the ultimate goal of getting menstrual leave arranged by law in the Netherlands. De Vroed: ‘Menstruating is a natural process that’s just part of the deal. Same goes for taking a rest when you’re tired and not feeling well. We also have carer’s leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, and adoption leave. So why not menstrual leave?’
‘It will actually increase productivity’
The idea of paid menstrual leave is spreading. American sportswear company Nike included menstrual leave in their Code of Conduct in 2007. In 2016, the British Coexist was the first UK company to introduce a policy that allows women to take time off during their menstruation. They can rearrange their work days and fulfil their hours flexibly. Synchronising work with the body’s natural cycles will actually increase productivity, explains Coexist’s director Bex Baxter in The Guardian. ‘Immediately after a period women are three times as productive as usual.’
‘Take a painkiller and get on with it’
Not everyone is enthusiastic. Columnist Virginia Blackburn thinks the new policy is a step backwards on the road towards equality in the workplace. ‘Coexist no doubt has very noble motives,’ she writes in the Express. ‘But what they’re doing is treating women as if they were delicate little flowers who need special nurturing and monthly tea and sympathy, and that is undermining them right from the start.’ According to Blackburn, menstrual leave is ‘a modern version of confining women to separate quarters every month so they wouldn’t pass their impurity on to the men’. Saying you aren’t able to do your job because you’re a menstruating woman? Congrats, you just killed your career. Her advice? ‘Take a painkiller and get on with it.’
‘Call it menstrual leave and you’ll create a nice red coloured glass ceiling’
Also Period! founder Paula Kragten isn’t too enthusiastic when the media ask her opinion. ‘Of course you can call it menstrual leave, but if you can’t do your job because you’re feeling unwell, you’re ill. And if you’re ill, you should be taking sick leave, it’s as simple as that. By calling it menstrual leave, you’re basically wrapping it up with a big red ribbon. But that doesn’t change anything. A better approach would be to investigate what can be done to prevent this pain and suffering. Otherwise you’re just creating a nice red coloured glass ceiling. I, for one, would think twice if I had to chose between employing someone who menstruates – and is entitled to both pregnancy leave and menstrual leave – and someone who doesn’t.’
‘Men will just have to understand’
Sounds familiar, this discussion? Indeed: already in 2014 the British professor of obstetrics and gynaecology Gedis Grudzinskas thought it was time to introduce menstrual leave in Europe. His opinion, as told to the Daily Mail: ‘Some women feel really grotty when menstruating. Coming into work is a struggle and they feel lousy. When you feel like that, it’s harder to take pride in your work or perform as well.’ Grudzinskas therefore believed menstrual leave would boost morale and motivation: ‘Women make up half the workforce. If they feel supported, they will be happy and productive.’ And what about the men? ‘They will just have to understand.’
‘So damaging to women, only a man could have dreamt it up’
Back then, journalist and former magazine editor Catherine Ostler condemned Grudzinskas’ plans. ‘An idea so damaging to women, only a man could have dreamt it up,’ she writes in the Daily Mail. On the face of it, the leave looks sympathetic and female friendly, but the opposite is true according to Ostler. ‘It doesn’t sound like a fast track to the top for any woman. Factor in ‘syncing’ (the theory that females who spend a lot of time together start synchronising the timing of their menstruation) and you could have half the office absent at the same time. Not to mention the embarrassment of explaining yourself to your boss every month.’
Who checks if you’re really on your period?
Other possible issues: what if an employer has to choose between an applicant who is and one who isn’t entitled to monthly paid leave? What happens when you get into the menopause, with hot flushes, night sweats and other problems? How bad do your cramps have to be to get time off? And, last but not least, who checks if you’re really on your period? Emailing your boss a picture of your bloody tampon isn’t a good idea. Workers at the British Coexist just have to say they’re in pain and they’re already encouraged to go home, but this isn’t the case everywhere. In the Chinese Anhui province, women have to produce a doctor’s note.
A physical check before leave is granted…
Currently, menstrual leave predominantly exists in non-European countries: Japan started in 1947, after labour unions already started the demand in 1920. Now Japanese women are entitled to 12 days menstrual leave a year. Indonesia followed a year later, but in 2003 the law that gave women the right to two days of menstrual leave a month was changed. Now employers don’t have to pay their female workers when they take up period leave. Also in Indonesia: the controversial practice of company representatives performing a physical check before menstrual leave is granted. Female labourers protested against this on International Women’s Day 2015, as can be read in the Jakarta Globe.
‘All of these countries treat women as second-class citizens’
In South Korea, women are given one day of leave each month. Thailand, Taiwan and Cambodia have similar policies, whereas in Zambia, menstrual leave is called Mother’s Day. Blackburn’s reaction to this in the Express: ‘Not remotely coincidentally, all of these countries treat women as second-class citizens.’ Coincidence or not? Most countries with menstrual leave don’t score very high on the position of females in society. In Italy, only 61% of the women work, which is the lowest of all European countries (the European average is 72%). The new Italian legislation, which would make women entitled to three days of menstrual leave a month, was put forward by four female MPs from the centre-left Democratic Party.