A British company has reignited the issue of allocated “period leave” by allowing its female workers to take days off when they are experiencing severe menstrual pain.
Coexist made headlines earlier this month when it implemented its own “period policy” to give women allocated leave for the particularly uncomfortable part of their cycle.
“As a manager of staff I have seen women really suffer with their periods and I have found them doubled over in a lot of pain,” Coexist director Bex Baxter told The Independent.
“They feel guilty and ashamed for taking time off and often sit at their desks in silence not wanting to acknowledge it.”
Menstrual leave is not a new idea – in 2007, Nike (including its Australian offices) introduced a policy allowing women to work flexibly during their period, and asked their business partners to sign a memorandum showing they were on board.
Period leave is a controversial topic for a number of reasons. Some label it discriminatory towards men, who aren’t given an equivalent option, while others question whether it discriminates against women by perpetuating the myth all women are less productive when they are menstruating.
The surprising history of menstrual leave
The concept first popped up in early 20th-century Japan, and was inscribed in Japanese law by 1947. Indonesia passed a mentrual leave law the following year, granting women two days of leave per month.
Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan also have period leave enshrined in law, although the Jakarta Globe reported women in Indonesia are subjected to a physical examination before they’re allowed a day off.
Nike is the only company to have menstrual leave as a global policy.
Sympathy or discrimination?
Dr Elizabeth Farrell, Medical Director at the Jean Hails Women’s Health Centre in Melbourne, said menstrual leave could potentially turn periods into a “pathological condition”.
“I wouldn’t want [menstrual leave] to be seen as necessary, because it gives the impression that women can’t cope … that because you’re a woman, you can’t keep up ‘with us blokes’,” she said.
In the legal world, the myth perpetuated can be more extreme.
While it has only been used as a mitigating factor in Australian criminal trials, the ‘PMS defence’ has successfully helped downgrade murder charges to manslaughter in the UK and in 1981 helped a woman who stabbed her co-worker to death avoid jail.
According to Dr Farrell, who deals specifically with women’s health, women experiencing period pain severe enough to keep them at home needed to see their doctor about it.
She said it was very possible they would be diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronic recurring condition affecting one in 10 women.
“It could also be fibroids (benign tumours of the uterus) which 70 per cent of women will have at the end of their reproductive life,” she said.
“[The policy] could be very good if women were using their time off to see their doctor about what’s really going on,” she said.
Should period leave be separate?
Despite saying severe period pain was a very real condition, general practitioner and senior research fellow at the University of Adelaide Dr Oliver Frank said it needn’t be singled out from other illnesses.
“Are we going to have headache leave? Prostatism leave for men who can’t pee?” he said.
“It could be stigmatising for women who are applying for a job and have to tell their employers they’ve taken 139 days of menstrual leave.”
Dr Frank said usually GPs tended not to disclose the illness preventing an employee from working when providing a medical certificate.
“It’s a private matter, it goes against principle [to single out the cause],” he said.
And it’s likely women would be reluctant to call on the leave anyway.
A global survey by the International Women’s Health Coalition and menstrual health app Clue found women all over the world were still embarrassed to talk about their periods.
The survey found over 5000 different euphemisms used to mask period talk, and that 30 per cent of women are too embarrassed to discuss their period with a male family member, let alone a colleague or supervisor.