By Poorva Puri
Once a month, I wake up in the morning with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach: it’s the realisation that I’m about to get my period.
I can feel the cramps, the loss of energy, that ‘icky’ feeling that makes me want to stay in bed with a hot water bottle and watch Netflix all day. But, somehow, I unwillingly drag myself out of bed, take a long hot shower, pop a painkiller and make my way to work.
When I found out about a company making headlines for offering menstrual leave to their female employees, my first thought was, ‘This is amazing — the future is here!’ The idea of being able to work from home when I’m feeling my worst was appealing. It was liberating to think that as a woman I could embrace my period, admit that I was not 100% and that it was something to be incorporated into my work life, not ignored or assumed not to exist. I felt that this added a notch to the rather empty belt for female equality in the workplace. However, as the idea started to sink in, I realised that there were certain problems with this policy that might hold women back from being treated as equals in the workplace rather than level out the playing field.
For me, the biggest problem with menstrual leave is giving it a label. It’s a form of positive discrimination which separates women from men, and allows people to think that women who are on their period can’t perform as well at work as those not on their period. Since menstruation isn’t something men and women tend to discuss in a professional setting, it might simplify the issue at hand and could equate menstrual leave with the idea that, once a month, women can’t work as well as men can because they have this ‘disadvantage’. Due to a lack of communication, what many don’t understand is that menstruation is not a hindrance, it’s just an occurrence. It is something that happens and most women know how to deal with it — they just need the space to do so in any way they feel comfortable. This can mean working from home, coming into work for half the day or braving it and continuing with business as usual. I believe that the label menstrual leave will mean that those who don’t properly understand menstruation might associate this time off with generalisations which will hurt women seeking equal treatment to men.
The second issue is the idea that menstruation is something we should get designated leave for. It’s a battle which, in my opinion, is a lose-lose situation for women. Asking for menstrual leave might imply that women are disadvantaged, given the fact that once a month they’ll have to be on ‘leave’. I think this results from the fact that we consider ‘leave’ to imply we are cannot work because we are not in the office. Thus, menstrual leave may be misconstrued as sick leave, which again misrepresents menstruation — a painful period may be more similar to a chronic condition. Sick leave exists for when you are too ill to work, but a chronic ailment may simply require flexibility in working hours, rather than time off. For example, I have a chronic gut disorder which doesn’t fit in to the sick leave label — most days I can come into work. However, some days, I need to take the morning off to rest from pain and discomfort and other days I might have to leave early because the pain gets worse during the day. There is no provision in my contract for such a condition, and I feel that taking sick leave is reserved for those truly awful days and there is no in-between that fits my problem. I feel the same about menstruation as I cannot determine month by month how bad my cramps will be, or how weak I will get, but I’m constrained by my contract and the expectation of showing up to work, and constrained by the ‘face time’ culture which equates days in the office with willingness to work and productivity. However, not having it at all means that women who do experience terrible periods may lose out.
There are also many structural issues that impact the problems I’ve highlighted, especially that of a culture that rewards long hours in the office and assumes that working from home is less productive. There’s a wider lack of communication and flexibility over working hours and employee needs, whether in regard to issues related to painful periods or chronic medical conditions.
To me, the concept of menstruation leave is flawed and while a lot of companies are taking inspiration from current examples (Coexist in Bristol, etc), I believe this distracts from the real conversation we should be having about making work more flexible in general. We should be allowing employees to work during hours that they are comfortable with and using targets — not number of hours worked — to measure results. Additionally, we need to work on improving communication so that women aren’t afraid to discuss menstruation with their managers either. I personally find it difficult because all the managers in my team are men which, again, is another structural issue. Until we reach that stage, I will just have to continue enjoying the horrified look on my manager’s face when he asks why I’m late and I answer with ‘There’s a shark attack taking place in my uterus.’