'Menstrual Leave' Policies Are Becoming More Common. Is It Possible That It Will Backfire?


'Menstrual Leave' Policies Are Becoming More Common. Is It Possible That It Will Backfire?

Miriam Requena, a five-year municipal employee in the Catalan city of Girona, Spain, has a variety of benefits, including sick leave, personal days, and paid vacation time. She was taken aback when menstrual leave was added to the list.

Requena, 31, told TIME, "I had never realised that we required this kind of flexibility." But she rapidly recognised its worth. To be able to say, "Listen, I'm menstruation, and sometimes it causes certain pains that prevent me from going to work or being 100 per cent productive" breaks all taboos.

In April, the city of Girona became the first in Spain to propose implementing a menstrual leave policy for its more than 1,300 employees. From the Catalan villages of Ripoll and Les Borges Blanques to the eastern metropolis of Castellón de la Plana, a slew of municipalities quickly followed suit, establishing Spain as the standard-bearer and pioneer in Western Europe for a workplace policy that has caused passionate discussion around the world.

Deputy Mayor Maria Angels Planas told reporters in June that Girona is "carving out a new path" in terms of women's labour rights after the city council voted overwhelmingly to allow people who menstruate—women, transgender men, and nonbinary individuals—to take up to eight hours of leave per month, which they would then have to work as overtime within a three-month period. We're breaking the taboo surrounding menstruation and the agony that some women—including ourselves—experience during this time.

Some employees initially objected to the policy, which was championed by the local labour organisation Intersindical-CSC. "We had some guys who were perplexed as to why they weren't getting leave, while women were concerned that this would perpetuate the impression that menstruation is painful or that we're victims," says rika Andreu, a union representative.

However, without such a policy, some women are forced to choose between working through their period symptoms or taking sick days or vacation time. Some employees were initially opposed to the policy, which was championed by Intersindical-CSC, a local labour organisation. "We had some guys who were bewildered as to why they weren't getting leave," says rika Andreu, a union spokesperson. Women were afraid that this would perpetuate the notion that menstruation is painful or that we're victims.

Without such a policy in place, however, some women are forced to choose between working through their period symptoms or taking sick days or vacation time.

The debate over period leave

The conflict between work expectations and monthly symptoms prompted Bex Baxter, then a director at the U.K. social venture Coexist, to draught one of the first menstrual leave policies at a Western firm in 2016. I noticed a member of staff bent double, white as a sheet, clearly in a lot of agony, serving people over the reception, Baxter adds. Baxter recognised herself in her colleague's sorrow; she has long suffered from debilitating periods that leave her collapsing practically every month when they begin.

Coexist's decision to offer women up to one paid day of menstruation to leave every month propelled the 31-person company into the public eye. "There was a massive pushback," Baxter adds. "One remark that lingers in my mind is, 'By doing this, you're putting feminism back 100 years.'"

She was taken aback by the fury of the conversation. Women, not males, were the source of the toxicity, she claims. Women who were afraid that they had battled to be equal to men, not viewed as weak, and didn't want this to bring attention to a weakness within them and create a stigma that would prevent them from getting promoted.

While a global debate raged over whether Coexist's approach was benefiting or hindering its female employees, the concept looked to be working within. According to Baxter, who continues to work with firms and governments interested in introducing menstruation leave, managers observed greater commitment, resilience, and productivity. According to the data, the policy's benefits extended beyond the 24 women at Coexist, with males at the company seeing it as part of a broader culture of inclusivity that allowed them to modify their workdays to their bodies as needed.

A 2016 proposal by four Italian lawmakers offering up to three days of paid menstrual leave per month failed to gain traction in parliament, much to the relief of some who feared it would make employers more hesitant to hire women in a country with one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in Europe. "Most people, including myself, were concerned that this would increase discrimination against women," says Daniela Piazzalunga, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Trento.

Menstrual leave’s complicated history

The concept of a formal menstruation vacation began nearly a century ago in Soviet Russia when menstruating women were relieved from paid work in the 1920s and 1930s in order to protect their reproductive health. In the late 1920s, labour organisations in Japan took up the idea, and it was eventually codified in Japanese law in 1947.

According to Izumi Nakayama, an academic at the University of Hong Kong who has extensively studied Japan's menstrual leave programme, the thinking behind the move in Japan was partly based on theories about women's fertility, with unions warning that long hours and poor sanitary conditions could harm their ability to bear children. Menstrual leave policy is now applied differently across Japan, with decisions on how much time is provided and whether it is paid typically left to collective bargaining with unions and employers' discretion. There is minimal evidence that it has been utilised in the last few decades. According to 2014 government research, less than 0.9 per cent of women at businesses with a menstrual leave policy had requested it, citing shame or a lack of understanding from male superiors as reasons. Women, particularly highly educated white-collar workers, will be substantially less likely to take menstruation leave in 2021.

Nonetheless, the Japanese precedent has spawned a slew of copycat legislation across East Asia, from South Korea to Taiwan and a number of Chinese provinces, all based on the notion of women's vulnerability during menstruation.

Zomato, an Indian food delivery service, began granting staff up to ten days of paid menstrual leave every year last year, joining a small group of private enterprises in the nation that have worked to break down the country's deeply ingrained taboos around menstruation. According to a corporate spokeswoman, 621 employees have taken more than 2,000 days of leave since the policy was implemented in August 2020.

Employers throughout the world have supported menstruation leave, but the concept has lacked popularity in the United States. According to a 2017 survey of 600 Americans published in the journal Health Care for Women International, nearly half of those polled believed that menstruation leave would have a negative impact. Some people expressed concerns that the policy would be unfair to women who do not menstruate or that the leave will be misused. Others argued that the policy was pointless and that employees should take sick days as needed. In some situations, this may necessitate taking unpaid time off. There are presently no government regulations for paid sick leave in the United States. According to a poll conducted by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, 24 per cent of workers in the United States do not have access to paid sick leave.

Months after menstrual leave regulations began to gain traction in Spain, efforts are now underway to enhance the policy and spread it to the private sector, notable industries like retail, which employ a higher percentage of women. The Intersindical-CSC union in Girona had originally demanded 16 hours of paid leave each month for municipal workers, but had to back down during negotiations with the city, according to Ester Rocabayera, the union's feminism secretary. It's a significant step forward, she continues, but the legislation still leaves many women on the fringes, citing the example of single parents who are unable to make up time lost owing to childcare constraints.

Amendments to the programme, such as eliminating the obligation for workers to offset their paid leave with overtime, have been difficult to sell thus far, according to Rocabayera. And this highlights the limits of employers' ostensible commitment to feminism—we can take menstruation leave, but it's up to us to reinvest that time.

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