DE&I   //   June 9, 2022  ■  4 min read

Why global paid menstrual-leave movement could actually harm women, senior female execs warn

Agnieszka Prusik, a London-based senior UX manager, experiences painful, heavy menstrual cycles each month, which require high doses of painkillers and the ability to work at a slower pace. But, those experiences are so personal to her — even if paid menstrual leave was available — she wouldn’t take it.

“Firstly, I’d need to tell my boss — who is a man — that I have my period, and this is not something I’m comfortable sharing with anyone, other than close friends or family,” said Prusik, who also runs her own design agency, AgaDigital.

“Secondly, I feel I would be judged. In a previous company, I was bullied for taking time off for severe back pain, so I’d prefer to take general sick leave, than specific period leave.”

The bigger, and more concerning, issue to Agnieszka, is the potential to create another reason for employers to favor hiring men, given some employers’ assumptions concerning maternity leave and juggling childcare schedules.

“Things have gotten better recently as paternity leave is starting to become more equal, but I think adding period leave would make the gap bigger again. Our society needs a lot of education in this area before people are not biased,” she added.

Yet the paid menstrual leave movement is gaining global momentum. The governments of Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Zambia have all mandated it in some form, with Japanese legislation going back as far as 1947. Spain is set to become the first western country to introduce the initiative, announcing “unlimited” menstrual leave for women, on May 17.

While U.K. charities are pressuring the government to follow suit, and a handful of individual companies have taken this up, there appears to be little overall traction in the U.S. A 2019 study found that 42% of U.S. adults would support a menstrual leave policy — but half felt it might have negative societal effects.

It’s those negative effects, that could set women back further, that companies must consider carefully before introducing paid menstrual leave.

Natalie Welch, co-founder of The Typeface Group, a marketing agency based in Basingstoke, U.K, believes introducing menstrual leave could backfire on women whose employers monitor how staff use available policies.

“Companies could collect data on how much work someone does or doesn’t do because of their period. Using that data against someone is what concerns me, and I’m not sure I see the benefit of how that data could be used,” said Welch.

It’s an unnecessary complication, she believes. “Women already get stigmatized in the workplace for having families. Bringing periods to the forefront can also have a detrimental effect because while it shouldn’t be a taboo subject, it could be used to discriminate further against women. Employers could say, ‘we’re only going to pay women the equivalent of 27 days a month because we know for three of them, they might have time off,’” she added.

Welch has previously discussed paid menstrual leave with her co-founder and all-female team of eight, but landed on what they felt was a more inclusive policy that those who don’t menstruate could also benefit from.

Employees at The Typeface Group can take unlimited personal days, which can cover both mental and physical health issues. That’s on top of unlimited sick leave and their vacation allowance. While personal days can be taken without any notice, Welch said she trusted her team not to bail on big projects or deadlines. She took a personal day herself recently after feeling overwhelmed by the amount of personal tasks that were piling up and needed taking care of.

“It’s all well and good offering these things, but you need to model them and lead by example,” said Welch.

“We see stress levels immediately come down when you’ve had a day to do whatever it is you needed, with no questions or judgment.”

The potential for period leave to add to the number of sex discrimination cases also weighs heavily for Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at small business HR consultancy Peninsula.

“Since only females, and those assigned female at birth, are able to menstruate, placing an employee at a disadvantage for a women’s health issue could amount to sex discrimination or harassment,” said Palmer.

While introducing a contractual entitlement to menstrual leave could help affected employees, it may be more beneficial for organizations to instead implement other support mechanisms, Palmer recommended. These include hybrid or remote working, flexible hours, a culture where it’s okay to take time off and have open conversations, as well as providing free period products.

Indeed, Welch openly displays menstrual products on her desk and is no stranger to conversations on the topic — but isn’t sure all hiring managers will see things the same way at appraisal time.

“They could make comments like, ‘you seem to have regular time off’, and use that as a reason to get rid of someone. But it’s not like I’m going out and getting drunk. My womb is shedding. So that concerns me,” added Welch.