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Period drama: why menstrual leave does not strike a blow for gender equality

Instead of menstrual leave for female employees, a better policy would be to increase sick leave for everyone, no matter their ailment. Shutterstock

There I was, sandwiched between two women, both of whom were wearing faux-bloodied tampons as earrings.

At the front of the room another woman was talking passionately about premenstrual tension, about premenstrual syndrome. About how these concerns are less real and more a patriarchal/big-pharma conspiracy.

While my brow had already been furrowed by the earrings, my eyebrows managed to nudge that bit closer together. So period problems are all in our heads?

My, my, where have women heard this before?

On one hand, I’ve happily never needed to discover whether the pink-boxed ibuprofen really targets lady pain in a daintily effective way. On the other hand, for two days most months, I’ll be a bit … unstable. Not the batshit crazy Lizzie Borden variety so popular in film and TV, but there’s usually some crying and a wavy feeling of being a bit shattered and irreparable.

So, for me, it’s a brief jaunt into Crazy Town once a month and some vague and completely manageable breast tenderness: on the symptom spectrum I’ve had it pretty easy. A deluge of conversations with bleeding friends, family members, and students, however, reveals that the experience runs the gamut of foetal-position-bleeding-to-death-while-being-stabbed-with-a-thousand-hot-knives through to, meh, “it’s barely been a trickle since I’ve been on Depo Provera/Mirena”.

Menstrual leave is in the news again with a British company introducing a policy to give their female-dominated workforce time off for period calamities. Nike did this in 2007, and a handful of Asian countries including Japan, Indonesia, and Hong Kong have made such policies federally.

If I’m honest, I’m conflicted about it.

2015 was a bit of a banner year for menstruation: it was getting a lot of media attention and menstrual art and menstrual confession was having a bit of a moment. I found myself having a lot of conversations with journalists.

Personally and academically I’m keen on doing away with all those big ticket taboos. Menstruation. Masturbation. Anal sex. Keeping quiet, getting embarrassed, talking around topics or using awkward euphemisms and circumlocutions prevent frank conversations in classrooms, in doctor’s surgeries, in bedrooms and lead to sexist and strangling stereotypes and sanctions.

There is, however, a downside to too much out and proud talk. Equally, there’s a downside to asking an employer for help.

In reminding those around us that we’re different, that we have special needs, female needs – that at certain times of the month we might not be at our labour market best – suddenly we’re outing ourselves as someone who is different, less able, and potentially less desirable as an employee in comparison to that male job applicant who won’t take that day off per month to cry, cuss, and cuddle his hot-water bottle.

Assumptions about women’s bodies, about women’s emotional stability, about their strength and capabilities, have long been barriers to many professions and a reminder of fecundity (read: maternity leave). I suspect, therefore, that actively creating policies based on difference – in a climate where true equality still remains a pipe dream – is probably a step in the wrong direction.

Equally, while I have no problem with allowing women time off work for menstrual calamities, I have a severe problem with being exposed to the awful and predictable ways the debate will get hijacked by questions of veracity. Delusional demands for proof of a woman’s suffering. Arguments that will undoubtedly leave every bleeder that little bit more bruised and that little bit more reluctant to ever mention her period ever again.

Which means identifying some kind of hybrid solution.

If any kind of policy action were being pursued here, I suggest we look at a slight boost in sick leave for everyone. Menstruation shares, for example, many of the taboos and stigmas of mental health problems, with employees often reluctant to talk about their afflictions but who could nonetheless do with a little time away from the office/factory/farm.

Having a few extra discretion days to cover maladies – uterus-lining loss or not – is not only fair but good business. After all, compelling people to work when they’re sick – any kind of sick – is bad. For every body.

Further reading: Does gender equality suffer when women get menstrual leave?

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