Why We Should Be Talking About Menstrual Leave Policies

Menstrual leave is a thorny subject. For many, it represents an opportunity to talk about the very real need for greater flexibility in the workplace to accommodate menstruation. But for others, it’s a dangerous idea that goes against the hard won right for women to be seen as equal in the workplace.

Following the news that several local administrations in Spain have moved to offer menstrual leave to employees, the issue has been put back on the agenda and begs the question; should more countries and employers follow suit?

Just having this conversation can lead to positive change. For too long people have had to hide their periods and the associated symptoms from employers, with as many as 14% of women taking time off from work or school to manage their period. This isn’t a small issue. Whether you chose to implement a specific menstrual leave policy or not, it’s clear that many people need change through open honest conversation. Now is a great time to start.

Where does menstrual leave exist already?

In Spain, the news of an overwhelming vote yes for menstrual leave is being hailed as trailblazing. The policy in cities such as Girona means that people can take eight hours per month as flexible leave for menstruation, recovering that time over the next three months.

“We are eliminating the taboo that exists around menstruation and the pain that some women suffer – that we suffer – during menstruation. ”

Maria Àngels Planas, Deputy Mayor of Girona

Yet, menstrual leave has been enshrined in law in many Asian countries for decades. Here many report that they don’t take up the policy for fear of being seen as weak or that it might discourage managers from giving them more responsibility. In Italy in 2017, similar plans for menstrual leave were ousted due to fears that a three-day per month policy would lead to more gender-based discrimination than it would solve.

So, does menstrual leave really perpetuate or dissolve stigma?

Interestingly, many Asian policies were originally rooted in sexist ideas of perceived fragility during this time or fears that too much work would affect a woman’s fertility. This then reinforces harmful stereotypes and can perpetuate negative views of menstruation.

The problem, however, is not with the idea of menstrual leave itself, but with the continuing cultural understanding of menstruation and how it is perceived in the workplace. A good menstrual leave policy should open up conversations around how people manage periods at work and what would help them do this better. This in turn dismantles stigma and shame.

As Rose George points out: “An enlightened employer knows that a woman who can work without being bent double with cramps is a better employee.”

Disregarding menstrual leave completely for fears of negative repercussions does little to tackle the actual cause of discrimination, leaving people to continue to manage their periods in secret or risk falling behind in their careers.

What should we do?

The bottom line is that for many people their period causes them significant pain and discomfort that affects their ability to effectively perform at work. While this doesn’t affect everyone, it is a very real problem for many.

There is a strong business case for offering flexible leave policies that include menstruation and encouraging open dialogue in the workplace so that people can manage this essential bodily function at work. A clear policy that recognises the significance of the changes we experience in our bodies is a positive step to a more inclusive workplace.

Bringing this conversation to the table can open doors for tackling stigma and finding workable solutions to the problem. It can also lead to wider conversations around how people of all sexes manage their health while at work. People deserve to be able to manage their health while working and to not face further discrimination for such an essential practice of self-care.  

What do you think? Should your employer introduce a menstrual leave policy or is there a better way to tackle menstrual stigma in the workplace?

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