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Does gender equality suffer when women get menstrual leave?

Menstruation can cause unique health challenges, but does that mean we need special sick days? Clara Alim, CC BY-NC-SA

Does gender equality suffer when women get menstrual leave?

There’s nothing like a whiff of taboo to make news media outlets and social media erupt with vitriolic debate. Mention menstruation in popular culture and – just like sex-related topics – it proves to be irresistible “click-bait”.

But for those of us interested in gender equality, the real issue is whether this is helping or hindering the feminist cause.

The latest mention of menstruation to hit the mainstream comes from the United Kingdom, where a not-for-profit organisation called Coexist has introduced a “period policy”.

It offers female employees the option of taking leave from work if they are suffering from menstrual pain, or dysmenorrhea.

International sportswear company Nike introduced similar menstrual leave for employees in 2007. Around the world, leave is available to women suffering menstrual pain in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan.

But such open acknowledgement of menstruation and its impact upon the female body is rare in western countries.

Coexist’s period policy has provoked some wonderful satire and divided public opinion as to whether this constitutes “playing the girly card”.

My feelings about the move are mixed. This policy could be seen either as a positive recognition of the realities of everyday life as a menstruating woman, or as a regressive return to the dark days when women were discriminated against on the basis of biology.

In this sense, the debate around period policies or menstrual leave references the wider history of feminist thought and the battle for women’s rights.

Late 19th century doctors were in furious agreement that menstruation rendered girls and women less capable than men.

Many agreed with Harvard medical professor Edward Clarke that this “monthly sickness” meant females were not mentally or physically fit for public roles such as paid employment or university study. Biology was used as an excuse to lock women out of the public sphere.

Midol ad, circa 1961. Classic Film, CC BY-NC

This history explains the 20th century movement for equality feminism: the claim that women are exactly the same as men.

The curious things that women’s bodies can do, such as menstruate, lactate and bear children, were downplayed in an effort to minimise any sense of female incapacity. Sex education books for girls from the mid-20th century insisted that menstruation “doesn’t make you any ‘different’ than you are on any other day”.

These days opinions on menstruation are divided. Some, like menstruation educators Red School, want to recognise and celebrate female cycles.

Some “menstrual activists” look for ways for women to reclaim control of their cycles, through such steps as the use of re-usable menstrual products.

Others want to get rid of menstruation.

The problem with deciding whether menstrual leave is a good idea is that women’s experiences of menstruation are as varied as our fingerprints. Research is contradictory, claiming variously that half of New Zealand women, 84 per cent of Italian women or 90 per cent of Iranian women experience some form of dysmenorrhea.

Enshrining menstrual leave as a normal part of organisational policy creates the impression that all women experience period pain so crippling that ordinary work functioning is impossible.

But menstrual experiences are not uniform. Some women feel like sex during their periods, some don’t. Some feel creative and stimulated, some would rather avoid social interaction. Some feel like going for a 10km run and some would rather curl up on the couch with a block of chocolate.

I’d rather not instigate a workplace policy that mandates a particular way of experiencing menstruation: that it necessarily requires time off work and a retreat from the world.

Instead, I’d rather teach girls and women to pay attention to their unique experience of menstruation, to listen to how it makes them think, feel and act.

That may require some adjustment to their lives at different times of the month (when sick leave is always an option).

That may mean explaining to people around them that they feel grumpy when PMS strikes.

But let’s not create a blanket expectation that all women are crippled by periods or we risk a return to the bad old days when a woman’s intelligence was thought to drip out of her body along with her uterus lining.