Should Women Get “Menstrual Leave”?

Yes please, I feel like someone is crushing my ovaries with a nutcracker.

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Today, I had to go out and do some reporting on the Indian elections, despite the fact that I had just got my period and felt like there was a pixie in my uterus with a pick-axe, mining for gold. For a long time, I have known that Murphy’s law applies to my periods, meaning that they will always come either when I have important sex plans with someone who doesn’t enjoy period sex, or when I have to go reporting and will be the spending the day running around, with little access to a bathroom and lots of people to meet and seem normal in front of.

As a freelancer, you can’t really take a day off when you need it, not just before a deadline at least. Then again, in offices, it isn’t that easy either. A survey by YouGov in 2016 showed that 57% of women felt their period had affected their work on at least one occasion. Only 27% felt comfortable telling their boss that they were suffering from period pain, the rest made up an excuse, or said nothing. The persistent stigma around menstruation pushes women to suffer in silence.

One solution often suggested for this is to instore menstrual leave, a policy that affords women suffering from cramps one or two days off work. In several countries, from Zambia to Japan, it already exists.

But while supporters say it helps break the taboo around period pain, others say that the policy has been counterproductive in the country’s where it exists, reinforcing negative stereotypes of female workers as being weaker, and less capable of doing important jobs.

So is Menstrual Leave a good idea?

The Pain is Real

During their period, many women experience pains in the lower abdomen and back, and some can also experience lightheadedness. The pain ranges from mild to severe and is caused by the contractions of the muscular wall of the womb. It can last for two to three days, and for around 10% of women is painful to the point of severely derailing their daily lives.

But while this pain is normal and common, it is also routinely dismissed by health professionals. This explains why women suffering from endometriosis — a condition where the tissue which should line the uterus grows in other places, causing intense pain when it bleeds out during periods — often go undiagnosed for years, as doctors dismiss their pain as normal.

Even for regular levels of pain, women aren’t heeded by doctors. A study called The Girl Who Cried Pain found extensive evidence that women’s pain is treated as less important than that of men by healthcare professionals. While boys with post-operative pain were given codeine, girls were given paracetamol. Men got prescribed narcotics after coronary artery bypass grafts; while women got sedatives after the same procedure —they were perceived as being anxious rather than in pain. “Physicians were found to consistently view women’s (but not men’s) symptom reports as caused by emotional factors, even in the presence of positive clinical tests”, wrote the study.

Creating a Menstrual Leave would help to acknowledge that period pain is real, can be severe, and justifies taking a leave.

Break the stigma

It also helps to break the taboo around periods, which means women feel like they can’t tell their boss or colleagues what the issue actually is when they are suffering from cramps. When I was a teenager, I took swimming classes at school. This was before I used tampons, so once a month I had to skip the class. I remember how much worry this caused me at the time — I felt embarrassed to tell even my mother the real reason for not being able to attend and had to make up elaborate excuses for her to write me a sick note.

This same stigma means that women suffer in silence, it prevents us from normalising periods and period pain. And one of the consequences of normalising cramps is for there to be better information about what is not normal. If we talk about this more, women with endometriosis or extreme period pain would find it easier to realise that their pain is not just normal, and seek professional help, and force the doctor to listen.

A discriminatory measure?

On the other hand, though, treating a normal bodily function like menstruation as an affliction or impairment isn’t necessarily a great idea. It sends the message that femaleness itself is an illness, feeding into pseudo-scientific claims which have, in the past, been used to suggest women were less competent than men, and less capable of having important jobs.

In countries with menstrual leave, like Japan, few women actually take advantage of their monthly leave, worrying that it will make them seem weak or less competent. Back in 2013, when a bill was introduced into the Russian parliament to introduce period leave, the man behind it, Mikhail Degtyaryov, explained the measure with an extremely patronising description of periods, saying:

‘Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colourful expressions of emotional discomfort’.

As women, we already have a hard job convincing men that we can do the same things they can, and to avoid being perceived as weak. In journalism, there is a culture which values reporting from dangerous terrain. Often editors or colleagues will try to persuade women from going to certain places, suggesting that they would be at risk. And so on the one hand, men want to confiscate the hardcore, exciting work from women, and not allow them to do this kind of reporting even if they want to. On the other, when women don’t want to do this kind of reporting, their work is seen as having less value. Giving guys an excuse to see women as weak and less able to carry out their work feels like a risky move.

Sick leave for everyone

By linking the problem to the “period” rather than the “pain,” menstrual leave reinforces the idea that women are more vulnerable than men. In an ideal world, employers should allow workers the flexibility to work around all kinds of chronic pain, regardless of their gender. Period cramps should be just one type of affliction that justifies taking time off from work. Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at Texas’ Rice University who focuses on workplace discrimination, told BBC that for-women policies can backfire. “Offer flexible leave policies for all workers in your organisation, so that people can take leave when they’re sick, no matter what the reason,” she says.

“That puts everybody on the same footing, whereas a policy that singles out a particular group as needing extra care, as being somehow weaker, does have a potential for backlash and perpetuation of gender stereotypes.”

But after a lifetime of having their pain not taken seriously by medical professionals, women are likely to self-censure and not take leave for their period, even if they need it. Creating menstrual leave sends the message that period cramps are a valid excuse to take off.

Plus, if people perceive women as weaker because they have period pains, the problem is not the women. The problem is the mindset which enables this sort of stereotype, and prevents us from seeing it as totally normal that a woman doubled over in pain doesn’t remain in the office.

Menstrual leave or no menstrual leave, what we really need to do is break the taboo around periods, and stamp out stereotypes around menstruating women.

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