Menstrual leave policies spark fierce debates about how best to promote equality and advance employment opportunities. Nevertheless, their benefits outweigh the costs.
A policy of menstrual leave is an “old idea.” It originates in the Soviet Union during the 1920s to protect the well-being of future mothers. More recently, the policy aims to accommodate workers who suffer frequent discomfort or physiological disorders.
Only a few states mandate menstrual leave. Even in those states that have enacted such a policy, compensation rarely exceeds a meagre sum. South Korea, Taiwan, some provinces in China, Indonesia, Zambia, and Vietnam allow women to take time off for a few days per month (usually two to three) with entitlement to a full payment. In the case of Japan, companies are not required to make financial compensation. States in neither Europe nor in Northern and Southern America have implemented any menstrual leave policy.
Nevertheless, women sometimes forego menstrual leave, even when presented with the option. According to a survey conducted by the Japanese government in 2017, only 0.9% of female employees took their time off during menstruation. In South Korea, women’s usage of this leave declined from 23.6% in 2013 to 19.7% in 2017. Women reported that stigma against menstruation and stressful work culture contributed to their reluctance to take the leave that was their due.
Critics regard menstrual leave policies as biologically determinist and detrimental to gender equality. In particular, some women condemn this policy for its “scientifically unfounded assumption”: not taking leave during menstruation can result in fertility issues. Socially, other women believe these policies would “weaken” their standing in the workplace and threaten their career prospects. Some are also concerned that menstrual leave policies contribute to social discrimination between men and women: “The discrimination at work will never end if the rights of women and men are not balanced.”
The debate about the propriety of menstrual leave policies, is, in the first instance, a debate out equality. The United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women interprets equality as equal access and opportunities in political and public life with attention to needs that include reproductive rights. Equality hence does not render women and men similar. It instead advances equal access and opportunities by recognising that needs are different.
“Putting periods and period pain on the political agenda” destigmatises and normalises conversations about menstruation. Period shame is a serious issue that raises human rights concerns and exacerbates gender discrimination, child marriage, exclusion, violence, poverty and untreated health problems. Prioritising reproductive health should be taken seriously for both women’s individual health and social well-being. It’s time states took actions to demystify this natural biological process and offer appropriate support for those who menstruate.
Regarding employment, Professor Elizabeth Hill states that arguments against period leave are not dissimilar to those that against maternity leave, which was believed to discourage employers from hiring women. However, one lab-based experiment conducted in 2018 reports that women’s agency, commitment, and ambitions help them secure jobs despite their desire to take maternity leave. The same logic applies to menstrual leave.
We should stop stereotyping women’s physical weakness while we expect them to endure discomfort. It’s time to kickstart a cultural change in how we perceive reproductive health and female bodies.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.