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Period leave: progressive or sexist?

Do we really want special concessions during our time of the month?

By Abi Wilkinson March 3, 2016
woman looking at modern city

Like late-night Netflix binging when you need to get up for work in the morning, “period leave” is one of those ideas that becomes far less attractive if you take the time to properly consider the consequences.

For anyone who has ever suffered with painful menstruation, a formal workplace policy allowing employees to take time off whenever Aunt Flo is visiting has a certain obvious appeal. Many of us do not feel at our best during our time of the month. We get cramps and headaches, and some of us even find that we’re slightly more emotionally fragile than we are at other times. In these circumstances, a duvet day is always going to be tempting.

When Bristol-based company Coexist announced it was working to create an official policy allowing staff to stay at home when they’re on their period, many applauded it as progressive, feminist and empowering. Advisor Alexandra Pope – a self-described “women’s leadership coach” and “educator in the field of menstruality” – has given interviews explaining that menstrual leave “has nothing to do with women getting special concessions or working less.” She contends that “with more flexibility, we can deliver a lot better and be a whole lot healthier to boot.”

In many ways, she’s totally right. Flexibility over working hours and environments would make many of us happier and more productive. It’s also true that women who take time off during their periods wouldn’t necessarily work fewer hours than their male colleagues overall. Whichever way you want to spin it, though, “women getting special concessions” is exactly what’s going on.

Unsurprisingly, this has provoked something of a backlash from men raging about “unfairness” and “feminism going too far.” Though it’s tempting to dismiss such people as clueless idiots, their reaction is a solid indication of one of the main problems with period leave as a policy. It doesn’t matter if women taking the leave actually are less productive or hard-working; there’s still a problem if they’re perceived as such.

In countries like Sweden, maternity leave is more generous than it is in the UK. The benefits of this are obvious, but there are some associated downsides. Despite the fact the overall female employment rate is high, women are far less likely to be in senior roles than they are in countries like the UK and US – particularly in the private sector. Part of the problem is that employers expect women are more likely to take time off than their male colleagues, so they’re less willing to invest in training and promoting female staff.

Though it might not be a problem in a company like Coexist – which has a majority female workforce – if the idea of period leave spreads it could seriously hold women back. Even those who chose not to take it would be affected by gendered expectations, the same way that women who choose not to have children are disadvantaged by expectations they might.

It’s been suggested that the solution to the maternity leave problem might be to allocate an amount of parental leave that can be split as desired between both parents. That way, employers can’t assume that it’s women who are likely to take more time off. Pretty much the same principle can be applied to period leave.

There are many, many reasons people might benefit from flexibility at work. For the 10% of women who suffer unusually painful periods, staying at home for a couple of days every month might make a lot of sense. Employers should allow this and recognise that the hours can be caught up at other times. However, the same applies with any chronic health condition. Equally, people experiencing personal problems or juggling caring responsibilities would often appreciate being allowed to adapt their schedule. There’s absolutely no reason to focus specifically on menstruation.

For most of us, working when we’re on our period really isn’t that big a deal. It’s stigmatising and patronising to treat a normal aspect of female biology as if it’s some kind of disability. The idea we’re less competent when we’re menstruating is an established sexist trope that has often been used to argue women are unfit to occupy positions of power.

However well-intentioned, period leave is just not a policy that belongs in 2016.


Main image © iStock/Peshkova