When Bristol-based ‘Coexist’ became the first UK company to introduce a ‘period policy’ for its mostly-female workforce last year, the move hit the headlines and sparked a worldwide debate.
Allowing ‘period leave’ in the hope of tackling the taboo of menstruation isn’t unique to the UK.
Female staff in Japan have been granted time off during their period since 1947, when it became the first country to allow leave to those who suffered heavily with period pains or performed work that could be injurious to their health during their period.
The measure came as large numbers of women joined the post-war workforce and found themselves having to deal with workplaces that had inadequate – or absent – facilities for them during menstruation.
Other countries allow menstrual leave, including Taiwan, parts of China, Indonesia and South Korea. And while it’s not law in the United States, sports giant Nike introduced menstrual leave in 2007, including it in its code of conduct worldwide.
But in some places, it’s still unpopular – when the concept was debated in Russia in 2013, it caused uproar. The issue is clearly still one that divides and causes controversy.
Dr Gedis Grudzinskas, a leading consultant in Infertility and Gynaecology, thinks women should definitely be allowed to take paid menstrual leave.
‘We should have it, I’m not quite sure what the fuss is about.’
For Dr Grudzinskas, it’s a matter of mutual respect. He continues: ‘Be nice to the people who work with you or, in the old language, work for you, and they will be nice back to you.
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‘If your employer gives you flexibility to take time off while feeling unwell – for whatever reason – you’re more likely to go the extra mile to make that time up.
‘Employees who are forced into work when they feel unwell will most likely be less productive, and probably be less loyal to their employer.
‘The difference with menstrual leave is the fact that it’s only women who menstruate.
‘I don’t think it’s got anything to do with gender but I think part of the fuss around it is that the subject is being drawn into the discussions about gender.’
While men don’t know what it’s like to have a period, Dr Grudzinskas says they should try to understand.
‘No, they don’t understand. How would you expect them to?
‘But one does expect people to be mindful and society changes, like where we are today compared to where we were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago. Society is quite different today.
‘Years ago menstrual leave started because there weren’t proper toilet facilities for women who were menstruating or having menstrual problems. In today’s society we are more mindful and more aware that we should have proper facilities.
‘And we should be mindful that there are differences, and the same applies to the workplace and the work ethos. It’s perceived to be patronising but it’s not, not in today’s society.’
Dr Gedis Grudzinskas is a leading consultant in Infertility and Gynaecology and a former Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at St Bartholomew’s & The Royal London Hospitals School of Medicine and Dentistry
But Amelia Costigan, director of the Information Centre at nonprofit Catalyst, which fights for women’s rights in the workplace, is concerned that paid menstrual leave could have a detrimental effect on female workers, undermining their ability to compete equally at work.
‘I believe that paid menstrual leave is bound to create a stigma and a backlash against women,’ she says.
‘It feels like a Victorian-era policy when women were denied opportunities because men labeled women as the fairer or weaker sex due to simple biology.
Instead of putting in place a ‘gendered accommodation’, employers would be better off introducing better flexible work-life policies for all employees.
‘Employees feel more engaged and are more innovative in an inclusive workplace. And these inclusive workplaces have an underlying sense of fairness. But paid menstrual leave is a gendered accommodation, and that feeling of unfairness can cause resentment and bias.
‘Another part of inclusion is a workplace that respects an employee’s need to balance their work and their personal life. We advocate organizations provide greater workplace flexibility as a business strategy.
‘We know that employees are happier and more productive when they have some control over when and where they work best (as long as the work is completed).
‘Employers don’t need to know why someone is using flexible policies: One person may be telecommuting another using a compressed work week. Whether the reason for this flex is caregiving, rock climbing, taking a class, or for menstrual pain, the employer does not need to know.
‘Of course for the minority of women who do have dysmenorrhea [painful menstruation], companies do provide a medical leave policy for this painful health condition. But this should not become an across-the-board policy for all women.
‘This benevolent sexism will actually undermine a woman’s ability to compete equally in the workplace. If an organization wants to increase productivity and be inclusive, a better solution is flexible work life effective policies for all employees and to provide fair medical leave for those who need it.’
Amelia Costigan is Director of Catalyst, a nonprofit organisation which aims to expand opportunities for women and business.