Menstrual Leave Is Not An Ideal Solution For Gender Parity At Work

Despite being a well-intentioned intervention, measures like menstrual leave are likely to become barriers against women effectively entering and thriving in the workforce

Swarnima Bhattacharya
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Women’s hormones and hormonal health have always, albeit erroneously, been positioned as the antagonist to professional and financial success. During the Presidential Elections in the US, a female CEO commented against Hillary Clinton, “With the hormones we have, there is no way [a woman] should be able to start a war”. 


Historically, women have also been excluded from clinical trials because the widespread belief was that fluctuating hormones make them a more complex group to study. Defying inherent biological realities was seemingly posited as a pathway to equitability. 

Modern employers across the world, including in India, are experimenting with a slew of measures which can enable women to join the workforce and stay long enough to break the proverbial glass ceiling. However, the Menstrual Leave is a solution which is more likely to make the river flow backwards.

What is a Menstrual Leave?

Menstrual leave is a policy that allows a person to take paid or unpaid leave from their employment during periods, especially if it is making it difficult for them to work. Menstrual leave is distinct from “sick leave”. 

Why are some groups lobbying for menstrual leaves?

The grounds for such a demand do have an equalising impetus. A recent report by Deloitte stated that approximately 40% of women work through severe period pain. Women dealing with Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), PMDD, endometriosis, auto-immune conditions, menopause/perimenopause symptoms, and a large range of undiagnosed conditions, do go through extremely debilitating periods. 


Even otherwise, periods are accompanied by cramps, bloating, lethargy, lower abdominal pain and more. 60% women, in an initiative by Emcure Pharmaceuticals, said that worsened PCOS symptoms were a result of work-related stress and due to long-ignored personal health. Many women also have crippling PMS. 

Employers, women executives and the female workforce at large are realising that it is high time that biological differences need to be catered for at the workplace. “Toughing it out” and denying yourself the differentiated healthcare measures, is not the right kind of equality to aspire for. Perhaps it is not equality at all, just an erasure or denial of biological realities.


Which problems do menstrual leaves purportedly solve?

The intent is to allow women the choice of rest during difficult days. The reason many workplaces are not comfortable making them a part of “sick leaves” is because periods are not an illness, but just a few days that need extra care and rest. It is also considered an important signal that women in the workplace matter, and their overall well-being is a priority for the employer. Some have hoped that this would visualise menstruation in the workplace and make a dent in centuries of stigma. 

Why menstrual leaves are not the solution.


Despite being a well-intentioned intervention, measures like these are likely to become barriers against women effectively entering and thriving in the workforce, and can bias employers as well as colleagues. Moreover, such measures can only be soundly implemented for the roughly 10% of women who are in the structured formal sector, with regular employment based on a written contract with clearly listed benefits such as even general paid leave.

The 2018 WEF report clearly shows how ‘menstrual leave’ countries do not perform well (despite sometimes having far greater economic success than other more equitable countries in their regions). Economically, a majority of companies are not able to afford the cost of such paid leaves. It can lead them to hire fewer women or offer lesser pay upfront with the argument that this cost will be adjusted by way of period leaves.

It can also lead to a backlash from colleagues and employers against a sex-based benefit. The impetus to argue against menstrual leaves is the same that advocates for paternity leaves.

Despite a handful of Indian companies granting menstrual leaves, and Spain having legislated for it, the attitude by and large about menstrual health (or women’s health overall), is that of ignorance. It is this fundamental ignorance, which ultimately needs to be fixed - and menstrual leaves are a bandaid measure which could come in the way of women earning more opportunities at work.

Research shows that at least 71% of girls in India do not know anything about menstruation before their first period. The lack of preventative health measures for breast cancer and cervical cancer also points to a gap in awareness. Many couples glean insight into their sexual and reproductive health only when they are on their fertility journey, and not before. So to make workplaces truly equitable, menstruating women cannot be sequestered at home during periods, as that would preclude any further measures at work such as the availability of clean toilets, period products or even conversation about period pain.

Uttar Pradesh women teachers started a campaign in July 2021, that demanded a certain set of days be given as paid holidays to teachers during their periods. The campaign led by the Uttar Pradesh Mahila Shikshak Sangh reported alarming statistics of unhygienic school toilets, dropout rates of girls and absenteeism. This highlights the sheer diversity of the problem. All workplaces are not equal. Policies like menstrual leaves will anyway not affect the vast number of women doing informal and frontline work.


What measures could work instead?

The Global Business and Human Rights regime places the responsibility of protecting rights of workers not just on the government, but also on businesses. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights ensure that there is a corporate responsibility to respect the human rights of people by introducing policies as needed (Principles 16 to 24), and can extend beyond period leaves to incorporate building supportive culture and structures to normalize menstruation-by providing period products, planning flexible working hours, providing safe and healthy spaces of sanitation, access to water, washroom facilities and so on.

This is in line with the Indian Supreme Court recommendation as well, where they suggested this to be an issue for policymakers and asked the Centre to consider if a model policy should be framed which can possibly be a guiding force for companies. Most employers today also provide robust Insurance policies.

Companies like Urban Company have measures for their massive fleet of gig workers as well. However, those health covers do not solve regular health issues that can prevent women from often being less productive. Flexible working hours and work-from-home options have often been put forward as viable, reasonable options during periods. Regular seminars and workshops to drive awareness for overall health, including a focus on women’s health, is also a low-cost option to build consensus.

People are spending most of their time working or at work, so promoting health-seeking behaviour at the workplace needs to be done consciously and innovatively.

Swarnima Bhattacharya is the Co-founder & Chief Product Officer of Gytree. Views expressed by the author are their own.

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