Earlier this year, a company called Co-Exist made plans to become the first British business to introduce period leave. Yep, that’s paid time off when Aunt Flo’s in town. And it’s gathering momentum: last month, Ningxia became the third Chinese province to offer it, with employers facing penalties if they don’t comply. But it’s not a new concept.
Menstrual leave has been on the books in Japan since 1947 and it’s also on offer in South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan. An Australian union and a (male) Russian politician both campaigned for it to become law in their countries and while it isn’t widespread in the US, Nike sanctioned it in 2007 for its employees all over the world.
Like every reproductive health issue that mainly affects women, people have a lot of feelings about period leave. One criticism is that it could make women look physically weak. That’s understandable considering the Russian man who advocated for it seems to have been motivated less by concern than by a hyperbolic misunderstanding of what menstruation involves. “The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance,” Mikhail Degtyaryov claimed in 2013. According to The Guardian, Japanese women rarely choose to take period leave because they worry their male colleagues will treat them differently if they do.
Others see it as an attack on our mental toughness. “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,” argued journalist Abi Wilkinson. Dr Elizabeth Farrell from Melbourne, Australia, told The New Daily, “I wouldn’t want [menstrual leave] to be seen as necessary, because it gives the impression that women can’t cope.”
Makes sense: the last thing any feminist wants is to promote the idea that our hormones prevent us from keeping up with men. So should more companies really introduce period leave as standard?
In a word, yes. In two words, HELL YES.
I don’t want to see women (or trans men, non-binary people, or anyone else who has a period) banished to a cave until they stop their messy bleeding. But for some of us, it’s simply not possible to simultaneously be a great employee and experience day two (or three) of a period.
I first experienced agonizing dysmenorrhea (the medical term for painful periods) when I was 11 and have been debilitated every month since. I’m left exhausted and bloated, my guts in spasm, with cramps that can’t be eradicated by wheat bags or ibuprofen. And I’m not the only one. The British Medical Journal concluded that at least half of all menstruating women experience dysmenorrhea. As one of Co-Exist’s directors, Bex Baxter, told the Independent, “I have seen women really suffer with their periods and I have found them doubled over in a lot of pain.”
Expecting people to push through that for the sake of gender equality doesn’t seem humane, let alone feminist. Yes, they could take sick leave, but that leaves fewer days for when genuine illness strikes, promotes the idea that periods are some kind of sickness, and prevents honest conversations about our health. It’s true, there is the possibility that people of all genders might take us less seriously if we’re open about what we’re going through. But that’s only because we live in a sexist society, where what men do is seen as the default. Pretending we don’t have ovaries either only reinforces the status quo and make it harder to get the support we need.
Of course, there’s an answer to this debate that could please everyone involved: research. If governments or private companies invested money in the search for actually useful treatments, periods would be less of a struggle, work would be easier, and critics of period leave would be forced to find something else to rant about. Win-win-win.