Should Women Have Paid Menstrual Leave?

Stephanie Stark


After WWII, women across the globe entered the workforce out of necessity, before it could be supported or contested by any opinion or protected by any policy. In the U.S., the image of Rosie the Riveter empowered and glamorized working women. In France, Simone De Beauvoir began writing women's rights Book of Genesis The Second Sex, which outlined women were just as capable of success as men. And, in Japan, legislators attempted to accommodate women in the workforce by allowing them one day off monthly for menstrual leave.


Today, 58 percent of women are now participating in the labor force, and that rate — up from 30 percent since 1960 — is expected to rise consistently, according to the Department of Labor. At the same time, women are learning to accommodate themselves in the workforce — in 2012, notable businesswoman and glass ceiling-breaking billionaire Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stunned the world by announcing that she leaves work by 5:30 p.m. every day to make dinner for her kids. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer had a nursery for her newborn built next to her office suite. And earlier this year, when GM was under scrutiny for its handling of flawed ignition switches, the first female CEO Mary Barra quickly related that "as a mom," she was deeply concerned. Prominent businesswomen are becoming unapologetic about their gender responsibilities in the workplace, and rightfully so. As women join the working world in increasing numbers, the question naturally arises: Should women take a day off work to rest during their periods? 


A handful of East Asian countries seem to think so. Women in Taiwan get three paid days off per year for menstrual leave. Indonesian women are given two days per month. In South Korea, they are awarded back pay if they do not take their allotted days. The Philippines order “mandatory menstruation leave” to female private and government employees, and provide half pay for those who are menopausal and pregnant. And last year in Russia, a lawmaker attempted to pass two days off monthly for women during their menstruation cycle, claiming women’s memories and efficiency at work are deterred.


That legislation was rejected: The lawmaker, Mikhail Degtyaryov, happened to be male, and Russian women felt a law would be sexist and ostracizing — Degtyaryov was specifically citing mood swings and a lack of work efficiency as the need for the legislation. According to a Guardian poll, most people think women should not be awarded paid menstrual leave because it is a slight on women’s abilities in the workplace and a slippery slope for exploitation and discrimination. After all, in Taiwan, women are reportedly required to submit used pads as evidence. 


But Rebecca Watson, notable American feminist and founder of the blog Skepchick, says periods, however routine, are an illness and to treat them as if they are not is a disadvantage to women.


"If a man went to his boss and said "I’m bleeding so much that I have to change these bandages every hour or two, I have constant diarrhea, and cramping so bad that I can’t get out of the fetal position," I would argue that that guy should go home and feel better."


It’s true: Persevering through excruciating internal pain and debilitating fatigue during a workday is like running a marathon without water. Pamela Madsen, founder of the American Fertility Association, says with women's industrialized lives, we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. She says that instead of hiding and minimizing our cycles, and in turn treating it as an inconvenience, women should be listening to their cycles and adjusting their activities to it. In many traditional cultures, she says, women convened during their periods to reflect and spiritually connect.


"They were excused from their daily tasks so that they could do the work that could only happen during this time of bleeding. In contrast - in today's culture - it is frowned on to take 'time off' to take care of ourselves during this time. There is no honoring of this time - instead it is seen as an inconvenience," she wrote in Psychology Today.


But guaranteeing all women — whose cycles are so varying and so complex — a monthly day off will inevitably further the stereotypes that stifle women’s progress. Announcing details of your physical state will only invite never-ending assumptive commentary on it, which could further women's status as what De Beauvoir would call "others" — humans who can't be taken seriously because they are emotional, inconsistent, socially distracting, and weak. 



Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio University, Kim Little, says the negative consequences of the public, political debate regarding paid menstrual leave would have a negative impact.


She says the public conversation could lead to discriminatory laws against women based on their biology, and cited the example of the early 20th century Supreme Court ruling Muller v. Oregon- which upheld state restrictions on the working hours of women in an aim to protect women's health. 


"If it were implemented, I believe that it would be used by both supporters and opponents of women’s rights to further their respective causes.  Such dissension would cancel out any positive effects of such legislation," Dr. Little says.


So should women have to grin and bear the pain at work to avoid such stereotypes? Of course not. There could be an easy solution: paid sick leave. But not just for those lucky enough to score a job with health insurance. For women to avoid discrimination, we should invest in supporting universal paid sick leave to allow for flexibility and privacy for all.  Currently, the U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave for all its citizens. Two out of five private-sector workers in the U.S. — that's about 40 million people — do not have any paid sick days to recover from common, short-term illnesses, and that figure is skewed towards lower-income service jobs in which women are the great majority. So let's decrease that number considerably, and increase the number of women allowed to take time off they need. Ensuring paid sick leave won’t subject women to accusations of laziness and exceptionalism and won’t force them to share private details with curious and invasive bosses. It enables women to adjust their lives to its natural waxes and wanes is a progressive step in understanding the synergy of our work and life balances.


"See what happens if you can create some space around your time of menstruation... This is a time for self care - and working on creating less stress in your life," Madsen says.


The legislation to support paid menstrual leave is not being introduced in the US, but a bill to expand access to paid sick leave is.  The Healthy Families Act (H.R. 1286 & S.631)--a bill that would provide 90 percent of the private-sector workforce one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked--was introduced in March and was referred to committee in both the House and Senate. To pass this bill would be a step in the right direction to allow those who have the least access to paid sick leave, and those who need it most- women in low-income jobs- to adjust their lives according to their bodily needs. 


"This is a special dance that only women do. It's primal and is not served by being "cleaned up" and ignored. When we tune into our internal rhythm and honor it - we can only enhance our relationship to our sexuality, our fertility and our beautifully complex emotional landscape."


Author Bio:

Stephanie Stark, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, is a freelance writer and web producer out of New York City. Her work focuses on social, religious and gender issues in the US. Follow her at @stephanie_stark.

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