Dysmenorrhea (painful periods) is estimated to occur in 20 per cent to 90 per cent of women of reproductive age but the issue of whether organisations and countries should consider menstrual leave is controversial.
It will come as a surprise to many that there are already a lot of countries, particularly in east Asia, that offer menstrual leave. Japan has had it on the books since the 40’s but they’ve since been joined by South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. Even some provinces in China offer it.
However if it were to be adopted in Australia it’s worth taking a look at Italy, which is currently considering mandating three days paid leave per month for a woman suffering from painful periods.
The issue has tended to polarise debate. The Italian edition of Marie Claire, called it “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability.” On the other side, commentators have said that it might exacerbate the country’s problems with sexism.
According to the OECD, Italy has the lowest female workforce participation rate among high income economies. Added to the already very generous maternity leave (five months at 80 per cent pay) and leave for tending to sick children, Annalisa Merelli in Quartz argues that the proposed menstrual leave will make employers more wary of hiring women. While others just think it’s a bad idea and that women don’t merit a special privilege.
In fact, the arguments for menstrual leave can even be sexist. It’s been suggested that misapprehensions about the relationship menstruation has with motherhood was the reason for Japan’s initial adoption (essentially, if women didn’t rest during their period they wouldn’t get pregnant). And in Russia, a lawmaker proposed a menstrual leave bill that contained this passage: “Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colourful expressions of emotional discomfort.”
What’s more, in the countries that have menstrual leave, there are reports that women are afraid of using it because it could be seen as a sign of weakness, that it might “antagonise male colleagues” or “lead to sexual harassment”.
Should Australia offer it?
One of the arguments against having a national policy in this country is that we have mandated paid personal leave, whereas most countries where menstrual leave is offered, such as Taiwan, don’t. And while it’s true that for the minority of women who experience debilitating period pain the current allotment of personal leave is sufficient, the issue is a little more complicated than that.
As Bex Baxter the director of Coexist, a British company that has a period leave policy, explained to the Guardian, “If someone is in pain – no matter what kind – they are encouraged to go home. But, for us, we wanted a policy in place which recognises and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.” That sounds positive but some feminists have criticised Coexist’s policy for the negative and incorrect assumptions it could encourage.
A few weeks ago the Victorian Women’s trust made waves in the media when they announced their menstrual leave policy, and provided a template which they encourage other Australian organisations to adopt. It aims for flexibility and provides options such as working from home, working in a different office space (in a quieter area), as well as the possibility of paid leave.
But it’s unlikely many organisations will adopt it. Whether or not the notion of menstrual leave begins with questions about physiological discomfort and pain, it always ends in a discussion about gender. And that discussion is more complicated than an HR policy about health.
Indeed, many women have argued that a complication of offering menstrual leave is the harm it might do to gender equality. In an article for the Conversation last year, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne Lauren Rosewarne wrote, “Assumptions about women’s bodies, about women’s emotional stability, about their strength and capabilities, have long been barriers to many professions and a reminder of fecundity (read: maternity leave). I suspect, therefore, that actively creating policies based on difference – in a climate where true equality still remains a pipe dream – is probably a step in the wrong direction.”
What do you think? Does your organisation have policies around this issue? HRM would be interested to hear your views.