What Working Women REALLY Want: Paid Menstrual Leave? Exploring the Policy Pushing Back Against the Minimisation of Women’s Pain

Is menstrual leave an unwarranted, sexist ‘perk’ that will see women pull sickies and mean employers might prefer to hire men? Or might it improve women’s working lives and help employers attract and retain female staff? Sarah Lang reports.

At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culturewhy perpetual striving might not make us happierworking-mum guiltletting go of perfectionismbattling burnoutjuggling work with the mental load and SO many more.

Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? And are there more things we could ask our employers for?

Welcome to our series What Working Women REALLY Want. If you have story ideas, or are keen to be interviewed about a topic, please email us at [email protected]!

From her mid 20s to her late 30s, Aucklander Holly*, now 47, was badly afflicted every month by period pains. “Sometimes genuinely crippled. The pain and aching extended from my shoulders down to my knees. Sometimes it felt like a knife was being pulled through my guts. Sometimes it hurt too much to walk, or even sit in a chair. Eating was an issue: I couldn’t digest anything but the softest, most inoffensive food – red meat, beans, starchy veges, corn chips and other such crazy indulgences were out the window –  otherwise more pain, diarrhoea and constipation came along. The brain fog, whether it came from the pain or hormonal changes, was substantial.

“It really messed up my working life, at a time when I should have been able to focus on learning and earning. Usually I made a great effort to push through, with painkillers and hot-water bottles and extended lunch breaks in the sick bay. Regularly, people said I was so pale I looked like a ghost, and sometimes I’d have to head home. My managers over the years were mostly understanding, but it happened so often that I felt like it was weakening my standing as a ‘good’ employee. So I started taking that time off unpaid, and eventually went part-time for flexibility, and because I didn’t want to keep bailing on people.”

If paid menstrual leave had been available, Holly thinks it would have made a huge difference. “It’s easy to think paid menstrual leave is an indulgence, or preferential treatment, if you haven’t lived through the disability that abnormally painful periods create. But underneath the facade, there are women trying to cobble together an income, a career, a life amid the pressure of not showing ‘weakness’. So women push through horrible pain and other debilitating symptoms, running themselves into the ground.”        

More than half of women who menstruate experience some pain for one to two days each month, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Here’s a real word, to show this is a real thing: dysmenorrhea. Usually, the pain’s mild. “But for some women, the pain is so severe that it keeps them from doing their normal activities for several days a month.”

So no, we’re not talking about something that can be alleviated with some paracetamol and a wheat pack. And nope, no one’s proposing menstrual leave because of bloating, crankiness, or very heavy periods, although those things are not fun. We’re talking severe pain.

Government leads

In February, Spain became the first European country to adopt government-funded menstrual leave (it was proposed in Italy, but the government changed). Spanish legislation entitles women who experience acute menstrual symptoms to three days of paid leave – with the option of extending it to five days. You need a doctor’s certificate.

Irene Montero, Italy’s equality minister (quite the power title!) told parliament that, without such rights, women are not “full citizens”. Montero also said “there will be resistance to its [the policy’s] application, just as there has been and there will be resistance to the application of all feminist laws”.

Currently, menstrual leave is offered only in a handful of countries including Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea and Zambia. Someone I know who used to live in Japan said many women used it. Certainly, in some countries, many women are hesitant to use it. In South Korea, some men have publicly called it ‘reverse sexism’, and women are reportedly reluctant to ask for it.

But not everyone’s waiting for governments to take the lead. Globally, some progressive companies have introduced menstrual leave. Yes, the cost may be prohibitive for small businesses, but if it’s government-funded, many would be onboard. 

Men’s thoughts

Ask men about menstrual leave, and they may mumble unintelligibly, change the subject – or say they aren’t in favour.

Some men say it’s sexist. To which I say: would you rather have a ‘day off’ in pain at home, or a day at work pain-free?

Some men say days off should be taken as part of existing sick leave. To which I say: this would quickly chew up sick-leave and annual-leave days, meaning women have to go to work while sick with something else, or not take holidays.

Some men say they’ll have to pick up the slack at work. To which I say: studies show women are more productive than men at work and are paid less, so man up.

Some men question whether the pain’s bad enough to warrant time off, implying that some women would exaggerate the pain. To which I say that if men had periods, we’d never hear the end of it.

Some men say that menstrual leave would undo the decades of work that showed that female workers are as reliable as male workers. To which I say: the notion of ‘the ideal worker’ as someone always available with few responsibilities outside work is a masculinised, limiting concept that needs redefining for everyone’s benefit.

Holly has thoughts. “For a while, feminism was based on proving women could be just as ‘capable’ as men, i.e. operating in a male-dominated environment with no adaptations to acknowledge the realities of being a woman: facilities for breast-feeding, flexible hours, etc.” Thankfully things have changed somewhat. “Paid menstrual leave is the next step. Since periods are a biological reality for half the world’s population at one time or another, paid menstrual leave is about acknowledging the huge struggle some women face to just get through debilitating periods each month.”

“But acknowledging the huge disadvantage of having difficult periods leaves you open to the tediously predictable reckons of men who say women are too unreliable, and we should just push through it.”

Holly was unimpressed when, in 2011, then-Employers and Manufacturers Association chief executive Alasdair Thompson said the gender pay gap is due to women having “monthly sick problems”, babies and needing to take extra leave. (He was sacked.)

“Setting aside for now his convenient ignoring of centuries of oppression from the damned patriarchy,” Holly says, “he was actually correct in saying that women’s ‘monthly sick problems’ lead to more time off work, as I can personally attest to”.

“What was so infuriating was his disdain. His offhand dismissal of a very real issue is clearly grounded in the archaic notion that to have hormonal fluctuations is to be weak, unreliable, less capable of making intelligent decisions, and generally lesser than men.”

“Yes, women go through hormonal fluctuations every month, and some have to live with far more pain than most men will ever experience. That biological fact shouldn’t be weaponised to diminish women or prevent them from receiving support that helps them perform to their greatest potential in the workplace.”

Kelly*, a 28-year-old marketing assistant from Wellington, has terrible cramps and lower-back pain for two days a month. When they fall on weekdays, she works through it. “If I took them as sick leave, that would add up to maybe 20 sick days a year – and we only get 10 sick days a year. So when I get a cold or flu, should I work through that and risk making my colleagues sick? And take the rest as annual leave and sacrifice taking holidays?” Sometimes Kelly spends lunch breaks curled up in the corner of a meeting room, hoping no one comes in. Should she get up and pretend she’s fine just so men won’t think women are unreliable?

In defence of (some) men, one told me “yes, women should get menstrual leave. This is all part of us being here as humans – and we pay women less anyway.” Thankyou, Leonard.

Big picture

Someone well-equipped to discuss this issue with me is Elizabeth Hill, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, Deputy Director of the Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative, and co-convenor of the Body@Work Project.

As part of the Australian government’s project Investing in Women, Hill and colleague Marian Baird were doing research in 2017 on labour law for gender equality in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar when they came across the topic of nationally legislated menstrual leave. “We’d never heard of it. We saw it as a peculiarity. We were interested in it.” They hoped to research it in the future.

“Then in 2018, Indian IT media company Culture Machine launched their ‘first-day-of-period’ workplace policy.” Female employees could now take the first day of their period off work. “They put out a video showing young women [staff] having really positive responses to this news.” One woman says “that would be the best thing!” and another mentions how people say “what is the big deal?” about menstrual problems.

“Then,” Hill says, “well-regarded Indian journalist Barkha Dutt strongly criticised this move in a Washington Post column. She was outraged, [saying] this is another cost to employers for women’s employment, and unhelpful when there are already so many barriers facing women in India struggling to be taken seriously in their careers. This column sparked a global conversation. Marian and I noticed menstrual leave was being positioned as a new woke, weird policy, when actually it’s not new, weird or woke.”

They decided menstrual leave demanded serious academic research. So they and colleague Sydney Colussi wrote the paper ‘Mapping Menstrual Leave Legislation and Policy Historically and Globally: A Labor Entitlement to Reinforce, Remedy, or Revolutionize Gender Equality at Work?’.

“We found menstrual leave actually has a long history with various motivations. Some policies were pro-natalist, like in Soviet Russia. Some were motivated by post-WWII industrial realities: for example, in Japan where inadequate workplace sanitation for transport workers was a union concern.”

“We also mapped resurgent or new interest in menstrual leave, particularly from the private sector. Some motivations are about worker wellbeing and getting the cycles of capitalism in line with women’s cycles. That’s not a mainstream view. Many employers and unions argue this is a workplace-equality issue.”

Hill says, in the post-pandemic era, issues of workforce attraction and retainment – especially in the female-dominated sectors of health, education and care work – have come to the forefront. “So we’ve seen an expansion in the kinds of reproductive-wellbeing workplace policies being considered. This is leading to a growing appetite for conversations among policy actors [governments, unions, institutions, etc] about legislating for better policies around menstruation, menopause, pregnancy loss, assisted reproductive technologies, etc.” Momentum is building.

Hill says there are “real risks and opportunities” in this space. “Currently there’s some research on policy development and design, but no impact analysis.” So we don’t know what will happen or what the outcomes may be. “But we can make arguments. Advocates argue that these kinds of workplace reproductive policies have the potential to revolutionise workplace norms, destigmatise the reproductive body, and make the workplace more equitable. Others argue that workplace reproductive policies are another obstacle to women’s employment, a cost to employers, and could reinforce gender discrimination in the labour market.” It’s a hotly contested issue.

There’s an issue within this. “Even if there’s national legislation, if women think taking menstrual leave will negatively impact their career, they won’t take it up. That’s a challenge.”

Menstrual leave or no, employers can start conversations about how menstruation affects women’s wellbeing at work – and, consequently, women may become more comfortable bringing up the issue with their managers. Because no one should have to curl up on the floor in an empty meeting room.

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