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The pros and cons of menstrual leave

Spain is the first country in Europe to offer paid menstrual leave following similar policies in Indonesia, Zambia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The draft bill, approved by the Spanish parliament in February, allows women to request three days of paid leave per period “in case of incapacitating menstruation” such as debilitating cramps, vomiting or nausea, the Spanish Congress said in a statement. 

In Spain, employees are generally entitled to a minimum of 15 days of paid sick leave per year. But as a rule, it is only paid after three days of illness. Employees taking menstrual leave would receive the statutory sick pay from the first day.

The policy is “part of a broader package on sexual and reproductive rights”, said Euronews, including expanding abortion access, and has “sparked intense debate over whether it will help or hinder women at work”.

UK groups have been campaigning for similar legislation. “We need to understand the experiences and challenges that people who menstruate face in the workplace, and then take steps to support them,” a spokesperson for period equality charity Bloody Good Period told BBC News. 

The Labour Party has also proposed a menopause action plan, which could include paid time off for women, said The Times. 

The Week takes a look at the pros and cons of the policy.

1

Pro: raises awareness

Supporters of period leave policies argue that “they can advance gender equality by normalising menstruation”, Marian Baird, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney and co-author of a study on global menstrual leave legislation, told The Washington Post.

Spain’s new law is “a huge step forward because it’s got the whole society talking about this”, Bernat Fons, a union spokesperson at Girona City Hall in northeast Spain, told France24.

“The rights related to menstrual health have never been discussed [in Spain] and the data is chilling,” Ángela Rodríguez, the Spanish secretary of state for equality and against gender violence, told El Periódico. “It is important to clarify what a painful period is; we are not talking about a slight discomfort.”

About a third of women suffer from severe period pains, known as dysmenorrhea, according to the Spanish Gynaecology and Obstetrics Society, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches and fever.

2

Con: could increase discrimination

Critics say menstrual leave could “reinforce negative gender stereotypes and notions of biological determinism, leading to more employer discrimination against women”, Baird told The Washington Post, adding that it was too early to properly gauge the impact of such policies. 

Offering paid leave implies that menstruation is “some sort of debility that affects women’s ability to work, which is untrue”, Sally King, founder of Menstrual Matters, a non-profit organisation supporting menstrual rights, told The Times. 

The idea that menstruation is a disability could reinforce the historic stereotype that it “makes women weaker”, Maria Carmen Punzi, a menstrual health researcher at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told France 24.

Period leave could worsen perceptions that women are not as productive at work as men, especially in demanding roles, and lead to discrimination in performance reviews and promotions, Sioban Harlow, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Health Central.

“In the long term, it may be one more handicap that women have in finding a job,” Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of Spanish trade union UGT, told Euronews.

Italy considered a menstrual leave law in 2017, but lawmakers worried it could be detrimental to women in the workplace.

3

Pro: could combat absences

The largest menstrual study to date, by Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands in 2021, found that one in three women experienced such intense pain during periods that they were unable to carry out daily tasks. Half of these women kept their symptoms a secret, said Maria Carmen Punzi in an article for People Management.

“Menstruation-related symptoms cause a great deal of lost productivity, and presenteeism is a bigger contributor to this than absenteeism,” the study authors concluded. “There is an urgent need for more focus on the impact of these symptoms.”

Just over half of female employees have suffered period pain so strong it affects their ability to work, according to a 2016 YouGov study for the BBC.

Of 1,000 women, 52% suffered severe pain, the study found, with nearly a third of those taking at least a day’s sick leave as a result. Just 27% had told their employer that period pain was the reason.

“The impact on a woman’s career, not to mention on her mental and physical health, could be alleviated if workplaces were configured to be more sympathetic and to offer more support to women experiencing these issues,” argued Alexandra Jones for the Evening Standard.

4

Con: potential access issues

To apply for the paid leave, “employees will need to get a doctor’s note every single time”, according to Sifted, “because Spain’s public social security system will foot the bill”.

It is up to doctors to judge whether the pain is sufficiently debilitating to approve leave, which could discourage women from trying to access it.

It is also “unclear how the new law will affect freelancers”, wrote Madrid-based journalist Leah Pattem for Al Jazeera last October, “or how companies and sectors will need to reform in order to comply.” 

Some people entitled to menstrual leave will not take it for fear of judgement from others at work, she added. Many “have already normalised working in pain and discomfort”.

5

Pro: helps endometriosis sufferers

Paid menstrual leave could offer relief for sufferers of endometriosis, an incurable chronic disease that affects roughly one in 10 women. The severe pain associated with endometriosis often forces employees to take days off work.

“I would go to bed crying in pain, then wake up and have to go to the office and try to push through the pain,” Iris Serra, a marketer at Barcelona-based mental health app Oliva Health, told Sifted. “I was at the point in my career where I was growing professionally but people didn’t know why I needed to take a sick day every month.”

The prevalence of endometriosis in Spain is about 16.1 per 10,000 women, according to a nationwide study in 2021. “Currently, there is a gap in global data on endometriosis, particularly in Spain,” said the report.

“We need to challenge the squeamishness and silence around menstrual health,” Emma Cox, CEO of Endometriosis UK, told BBC News.

6

Con: legal and privacy issues

Men and women who do not menstruate could argue that menstrual leave policies for women are discriminatory, as they are not entitled to the benefits, Melinda S. Malecki, an Illinois lawyer, told The Washington Post.

“I think [menstrual leave] is fraught with more problems than it solves,” Harvey R. Linder, a labour and employment lawyer in Atlanta, told The Washington Post, adding that he would advise companies against implementing it.

Spanish trade union Comisiones Obreras has raised concerns over the privacy implications, questioning how women might need to demonstrate their symptoms to claim the leave, for example by proving that they suffered from a condition known to worsen period pain – such as endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome, said Euronews.

It could also subject transgender men who are still menstruating to scrutiny, or infringe on the privacy of women who have experienced early menopause.

Others argue that those who do suffer severe symptoms associated with periods should already qualify for paid time off under existing law. 

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