Menstrual leave - a question of choice

“I don't care if they take time off. I just don’t want to know about it.”

I asked a friend's husband if women should get time off for period pain. He’s a senior something or other at Deloitte, flies around a lot, works too many hours and manages lots of people. I expected Dave (we’ll call him Dave) to be as opposed to the concept of menstrual leave as all the other people I’d spoken to - the midwives, doctors, lawyers, mortgage brokers… the proffesional friends in my life,  who don’t get the benefit of ‘free-range’ hours, and couldn’t just take a day off without a valid excuse. 

“If they’re feeling too precious to work… they can make the time up around it,” Dave continued.  Too precious. Hmmm. Well, that definitely highlighted one of the reasons why menstruation leave is not a thing in this country. Working through your period is a matter of pride, of showing you can do it, that you’re not ‘precious’.

Most the friends I asked were women. Jane is a criminal lawyer, the only woman in her firm. Hanna is one of just two female brokers in her company. I asked them if they would ever ask for a day off for period pain and the general answer was ‘not a chance in hell’. 

“I’d be laughed out the office”

“Why would we need to tell anyone?”

 “Just take the day off, no one needs to know”

“But isn’t that setting feminism back?” 

It was interesting to hear such a strong resistance to the idea coming from women. But I get it, really, I do. I used to be a ‘legitimate’ working person too.  I started my working life in sales, one of only a few girls on the sales floor. Competing with the men, selling to a male dominated insurance industry at 26, my sense of identity as a woman was all over the place. I wanted to be one of the boys, I wanted to be respected, I also knew that wearing a short skirt to a meeting meant I would probably land a second one. Calling in sick and openly saying it was because I had my period was unthinkable, I wouldn’t be one of the boys, OR the short skirt wearing sales-girl either, to 26 year old me it would have seemed feminine in a way that wasn’t acceptable, it would have seemed weak. 

Maybe it goes back to school days, when getting my first period (in McDonalds, thanks universe) was a shameful event. I told no one, recoiled at the giant nappy-like pad my mum gave me and hoped the boys at school (who happily pinged the back of girls’ bras because… well, they were 13 and bored) would never find out. Being a woman was embarrassing to me, not that I ever questioned my gender, but I didn't want it all demandingto be noticed once every 28 days. 

Calling my manager up and informing him I wasn’t coming in because I had my period, would have been like announcing to the hordes of bra-pinging 13 year old boys at school that I had a ‘lady accident’ at McDonalds. 

So I get it. I get why there’s a shame factor, I also get why letting our period hold us back feels like admitting defeat, like saying ‘you win, I’m going to hide in a cave for a few days until you go away again’, and why should we miss out on commission, on important meetings, on things the boys get to do because they don't feel exhausted, stressed or in physical discomfort at least one day a month. 

But, menstrual leave, as logistically problematic as it seems, does work! Culture Machine - a digital media company in India implemented a ‘menstrual leave policy’ which entitles women to one day of paid leave a month. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/health/period-pain-paid-time-off-policy.html). Culture Machine is one of a few companies in India who recognise menstrual leave, and attitudes are fast changing in Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea and Zambia.  

Where there is change, there is bound to be a backlash, and there is legitimate concern that implementing menstruation leave would play into prejudices that kept women out of the workplace, a step back in our progress towards equal opportunities. Emily Martin, president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center worries that“It suggests women are uniquely handicapped in the workplace by the fact that they have periods.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/health/period-pain-paid-time-off-policy.html)

Italy was set to be the first Western country to legislate menstrual leave last year, granting female workers three paid days leave a month if they experience painful periods. The bill didn’t pass, with concerns that women were already being stigmatised for their biology (it’s common for employers to actually demand undated letters of resignation in case of pregnancy). 

I see how it might be a stamp of biological inequality to admit we need more time off than men, but does it really have to be that way? Considering the freelance generation, the move to flexible working hours and rumours of a four day week, is it really such a stretch to suggest that women who need time off, manage their time in a way they see fit? 

More than that,  what I really don't get is why we shouldn't have the choice. Yes, women were kept out of the workplace, refused the right to vote, confined in every possible way to domestic duties and belittled intellectually and biologically for thousands of years. But we get to choose now, don’t we? Isn't that what feminism is all about? Shouldn't we choose if we are too sick, in pain and exhausted to take a paid day off? And shouldn't it be our right to not have that decision made for us? 

The question for me, isn’t whether it would set women back, or whether men  would begrudge their female colleagues getting extra days off, but why we shouldn't  have the right to make our own decision over whether work will be too physically or emotionally demanding on a particular day.

A friend who works in a bar shared that one of his colleagues came in one day and informed fellow staff that she was on her period, would be playing a period playlist she’d made and would be working at her own pace because she was in pain. I’d like to live in a world where not only is this OK to do, but where a bar waitress wouldn’t have to come in at all if she is in too much pain to work a long shift. Her honesty isn’t a sign of weakness, but strength, and I challenge anyone to say this honest declaration is taking feminism back a step. 

If we consider that the working week was built around men, to fit into a schedule that suits their needs and their biology,  isn’t it a step in the right direction to factor in what women need to be most productive at work? 


Thanks for reading this guest blog post, I’m Siena Dexter, Creative Director at www.ideadolls.com.

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