The fact that a company announced they would allow women to take time off work during their menstrual week, whilst shocking a significant number of people, did not come as a surprise to me and did not seem wholly unreasonable or controversial. The reason for this is that I am not interpreting it in the same way as I believe some people are, as a message that women are ‘weak’ and menstruating is a process that disables women from continuing their daily routines as usual.
Period pain differs significantly from person to person, and where one woman might be able to do the 9-5 and continue on projects at work, another might be suffering from raging migraines and intense abdominal pain which can be crippling. A genetic link has been suggested by researchers and if your mother, aunt or grandmother suffered badly, there is a higher chance that you will too. I have relatives and friends who say even while dosed up on the maximum, if not above the maximum, of painkillers, all they want to do is lie curled up in a ball in a dark room and sleep it out.
I don’t believe it’s a step backwards in equality in the workplace whatsoever, in fact it is the reverse. Recognising that men and women are not physically identical and providing support for one gender’s biological processes at work is not patronising, it reflects understanding and flexibility in the employer. Only 14% of women supposedly take time off already for period pain, but ignoring this group of women is the same as disregarding the needs of any minority. And lets be honest, if men had periods this conversation would be radically different. Forcing even a minority of women to work through excruciating pain you are essentially punishing them for being born female, something repeatedly and vocally campaigned against.
There’s also the issue of ‘burning the candle at both ends’ and productivity at work. We’ve all had one of those weeks that seems never-ending; there’s piles of work that needs doing but you can’t concentrate because you have the headache from hell, stomach, back and neck pain and you haven’t got anything done for about 2 hours now. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just go home, take the break you need and come back refreshed and raring to go? You’d be more productive on your return and be more useful to your company.
It normalises periods and brings the topic into every day discussion, because menstruation should not be something we are embarrassed about. You wouldn’t think twice about telling someone your throat hurts because you have a cough, so why should it be any different if your ailment stems from the natural biological female cycle?
When I read that UK based company Coexist was to be one of the first to introduce paid “menstrual leave” each month for its female employees in order to make them more productive, encourage a ‘work-life balance’ and ‘break the last great taboo’, my first thought was ‘getting paid to take time off work? Great!’ But on second thoughts, we need to consider just how damaging such an introduction could be, especially in male dominated industries and jobs.
It comes at a time when the full-time gender pay gap stands at 10%, meaning that women are still fighting for equal pay and treatment in the workplace. To allow women regular time off, whilst their body performs a function that it naturally should, in my mind does the very opposite of breaking a taboo. Instead we are instilling the idea that women need to be treated differently in order to work at the same level of productivity as their male counterparts. This negative message has the potential to not just affect those in the workplace, but also teenage girls who are just starting menstruation. We should be empowering these young girls that their biology does not make them any weaker, and that they should not have to behave any differently whilst on their period.
Whilst some women may experience more discomfort than others, a majority are able to continue quite happily with their day to day lives, albeit a hot water bottle never goes amiss, and if the pain of a period is as incapacitating as some of these women claim, then surely medical treatment needs to be sought. In addition, anyone who has had a period will be able to tell you that periods vary from month to month. How will it be ensured that this measure is not just taken as a given each month even if it is not needed? I expect very few would choose to go into work for those days when they know that they could get paid exactly the same amount to spend them at home.
Even though the head of Coexist states that this measure will lead to greater productivity, surely it will impact heavily on those who are not taking time off. If your periods are irregular, do you just call in sick on the day as you would with illness, leaving very little time for any sort of cover to be arranged? More to the point, as a basic calculation, two days a month adds up to be approximately twenty-four ‘period leave days’ a year – nearly a whole month lost. I struggle to see how it is even feasible for someone to get paid for so many missed days of work on top of holiday, and question how effectively the idea could be applied to those on part-time or zero hours contracts. Many sectors of work in the UK are chronically understaffed, and to lose staff consistently throughout the month would surely not alleviate this problem.
I don’t enjoy periods any more than the next woman, but there’s putting your employees first, and then there’s introducing this ridiculous policy. Whilst it might provide temporary ease to affected women in the workplace, in doing so it will have a counter effect for others. The most heavily affected will be young girls, allowing a stigma to form before they are even entering into full time work, and women who for whatever reason do not get periods – they will face the gender pay gap, yet still work the same number of hours, for the same money as their female colleagues skipping off to lie in bed each month.
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