Last week, I heard about a British company, Coexist, that is planning to develop a “period policy” to provide menstrual leave to its female employees. As a female employment attorney, I’m a strong believer in equal rights for women, but this notion struck me as so very … odd. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but intuitively it just seemed like a bad idea to me.
So I did a little research, and it turns out that menstrual leave is actually a legal right in certain Asian countries. In 1947, Japan was the first to pass a menstrual leave law. Since then, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and, most recently in 2013, Taiwan, have also enacted such laws. The laws vary as to whether the leave is paid, half-paid, or unpaid, and how much time off may be taken (e.g. as needed each month, X days per month, X days per year). These laws, however, have proven to be controversial, and their effectiveness has been questioned.
Many argue that the laws perpetuate stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. Some male rights activists (yes, they exist) argue that these laws discriminate against men. One commentator, Tim Worstall at Forbes.com, noted that a new type of paid leave will increase employer costs – and the fact that the paid leave is only available to female employees will likely exacerbate the gender pay gap. Many employers in those countries ignore the laws. And, frankly, it seems that most women are afraid to come forward to ask for menstrual leave, for various reasons – embarrassment, not wanting to burden fellow employees, fear of discrimination or retaliation, etc.
In 2013, there was an attempt to pass menstrual leave legislation in Russia. It did not go well. As reported by the International Business Times, Mikhail Degtyaryov, the sponsor explained the purpose of his bill as follows:
During that period [of menstruation], most women experience psychological and physiological discomfort. The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance… Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colorful expressions of emotional discomfort.
Wow. I’m experiencing a colorful expression of emotional discomfort in reaction to those statements.
Now Coexist’s director, Bex Baxter, explained the purpose of the to-be-developed leave policy to the Bristol Post as follows: “We wanted a policy in place which recognizes and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.” She describes this policy as “synchronizing work with the natural cycles of the body”, including menstruation. She further explains:
Naturally, when women are having their periods they are in a winter state, when they need to regroup, keep warm and nourish their bodies. The spring section of the cycle, immediately after a period is a time when women are actually three times as productive as usual.
This strikes me as being pretty fuzzy science. What studies have established that we women are three times as productive immediately following our periods? All women? I personally don’t feel three times as productive then. I certainly hope my colleagues won’t expect me to be three times as productive at that time of month – I think I try to be as productive as possible at all times.
Now I know that menstrual pain can be debilitating for some women and, for some, can even constitute a medical condition of dysmennorhea. Under those circumstances, those women would likely be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (and its expanded definition of “disability”) or analogous state laws, and entitled to reasonable accommodations, which could include leave. They may also be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius to provide leave to eligible employees for a serious health condition (as dysmennorhea may be).
But for most women, we don’t experience that level of pain and we don’t need a special leave. Besides, why should we recognize menstrual cycles, but not other sex-specific conditions? I understand that menopause can be just as debilitating for some women. Mid-life crises for men? This needs to stop. Period.