Women's menstrual cycles are one of the few topics that still make people uncomfortable, especially in the workplace. Perhaps this is a result of the antiquated sexist notion that women's emotions are tied to their period, or that women fear that they will be viewed as weak if they ask for time off, and often end up keeping what can be crippling monthly pain to themselves.
But could paid leave for period pain catch on? British company Coexist made headlines when it introduced a period leave policy that would allow women to take time off that wouldn't count toward sick days. Bex Baxter, the director of Coexist, thought of the idea last year when she noticed a female employee who could barely stand from the severe pain she suffered. Baxter then reached out to Alexandra Pope, cofounder of the Red School—which aims at bringing "menstruality consciousness" to the world—and the two organized a one-day seminar opened to the public called "Pioneering Period Policy: Valuing natural cycles in the workplace."
Although Coexist is reportedly the first company in England to implement a paid period leave, it isn’t the first in the world. In February, China’s eastern province Anhui became the third in the country to introduce a "period leave," joining Shanxi and Hebei provinces. Japan has had a policy in place since 1947, shortly after the Second World War when an influx of women joined the workforce. Other Asian countries, like South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia also grant some form of menstrual leave. In 2013, Russian politician Mikhail Degtyaryov drafted a policy that would give female workers additional days off for severe pains.
In theory, while it’s just plain humane to give women time off when they’re dealing with excruciating pain that would prevent them from working, taking advantage of this policy would also mean revealing when you’re on your period—which could be awkward with male bosses and colleagues.
As women continue to climb ranks and take on higher positions, women’s health issues are getting more attention. Research has shown that one in 10 women’s menstrual cramps are so severe, it disrupts their daily lives. Or that there’s a disease associated with menstruation called "endometriosis" where a tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it. Girls writer and actor Lena Dunham brought attention to endometriosis, which causes severe pelvic pains and even infertility, when she wrote about living and working with it in the essay, The Sickest Girl.
As more research and stories gain attention, it's clear that menstrual pain is a serious medical problem for many women. For some, it’s a real struggle that causes chronic pain, yet still feels shameful to discuss openly in a work environment. Instead, most women suffering from severe cramps likely take a sick or vacation day or work from home, if their companies allow it.
Whenever rights for any group of people are imbalanced, discrimination and stereotypes are high likelihoods. While countries in Asia have been first to implement period leave, actually taking the leave is still not culturally accepted. For instance, in Indonesia where a monthly two-day menstruation leave is provided by law, companies need to perform physical examinations on female workers before they can take off. Hence, it’s no surprise employees rarely use the provision, especially in male-dominated workplaces.
That broadcasting your cycle so openly can lead to discrimination and stigma is one of the major reasons Naama Bloom, founder of HelloFlo, a tampon-subscription-service-turned-women’s health-company, says she’s "torn" for the women who take the leave.
"I absolutely want people to be more comfortable and have the resources they need and the time they need," Bloom tells Fast Company, especially those that have debilitating pain. "I’m just worried we don’t live in a world where culturally we’ve caught up with the fact that just because you might be going through PMS doesn’t mean you’re not capable of making good rational, logical decisions."
As an example, Bloom points to her former years working for American Express when the company decided to allow employees to work remotely. Shortly after, American Express abandoned that plan—because culturally they weren’t ready yet 15 years ago—and the people who volunteered first were the ones who suffered professionally.
"That obviously wasn’t about menstrual leave," says Bloom, "it’s just about being the first people to take advantage of a corporate initiative … that’s my concern."
Bloom says it’s a possibility, but there needs to be a high level of training before companies can actually institute it, especially in educating managers and leaders that there’s a difference between the physical pain that comes with menstruation and emotional instability.
When the Red School’s Pope led Coexist’s seminar, the focus was on menstrual policy, not menstrual leave.
"It was about creating a more cycle-literate workplace, in general, and specifically for women to be more conscious around the menstrual cycle...actually for men to be conscious around it too," says Pope. "The idea is not that women be given special concessions, but that women could be flexible...they still have a job to do and they organize their time accordingly.
Pope believes that real-life implementation of any kind of period policy needs to first
emphasize education around the cycle overall.
"It should not be something that is imposed from above," says Pope. "It should be something that a company comes at from a point of well-being. It will involve trust."
Granting women time off every month for her period may seem too much of an alien idea now, but so was making a bigger deal about paternity leave in many areas and industries until enough dads spoke up. What if we were to think about period cramps like any other general health issue?
If we’re serious about tackling the gender wage gap and other gender disparities that have plagued women since they entered the workforce, we need to be serious about all sort of complex issues that have a hand in determining the gender roles we’ve tied women and men to. We also need to be serious in asking ourselves, if men suffered from chronic period pains on a monthly basis, would we still be having this conversation?