Wednesday June 14, 2017

Should women get paid menstrual leave?

Countries like Japan, South Korea and Indonesia currently offer paid period leave for workers.

Countries like Japan, South Korea and Indonesia currently offer paid period leave for workers. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

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Italy could become the first Western country to offer paid menstrual leave to women who suffer from painful periods. Currently it's available to female workers in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and parts of China, leading some women to call for more Western countries to follow suit.

While paid menstrual leave is applauded by proponents and seen as progressive for women, some critics are concerned that the move would reinforce existing gender stereotypes.

Chella Quint, founder of #periodpositive, a campaign for better menstruation education and shame-free menstruation talk, says that companies who offer paid period leave promote an important message in the workplace.

"Companies that list this in their company values are showing that not only can people take period leave if they want to, but they can talk about menstruation generally in that workplace," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

'Taboo and stigma are the main issues around menstruation.' - Chella Quint, founder of #periodpositive

According to Quint, regular sick leave policies aren't enough to accommodate women for their periods because "menstruation isn't an illness."

"To medicalize it in every case seems to me to uphold a lot of old stereotypes that people have in trying to break down for a really long time," she explains.

By having a menstrual leave policy that explicitly states women can miss work for period-related symptoms, Quint says it would make women feel they can discuss a topic that has long been considered taboo.

"Taboo and stigma are the main issues around menstruation and not being able to talk about it with other people can make you feel isolated and you might not even be able to share why you want sick leave if your employer happens to ask," she explains.

However, not everyone supports the idea of implementing a menstrual leave policy.

Chris Bobel, an associate professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, argues such a policy could have some unintended consequences for women — a group that's already underrepresented in the workforce.

'Will this fortify sort of assumptions that women are unreliable workers?' - Chris Bobel, associate professor of women's studies at University of Massachusetts

"Will this fortify sort of assumptions that women are unreliable workers, that they should be passed over for promotions or raises, or given those choice projects because 'Gee, we know Susie Q ... has tough periods and she may not show up?'"

Bobel suggests the policy could also "push menstruation further into the closet" because women with menstrual disorders like endometriosis might "go home and suffer in silence" rather than seek medical help to treat their symptoms. 

Chris Bobel

Chris Bobel says there is more work to be done to curb the stigma around menstruation. (Rodrique Ngowi/Associated Press)

In some ways, Bobel worries paid menstrual leave is "ahead of its time" because there is more work to be done to curb the stigma around menstruation, including stereotypes that suggest periods make women weak, unreliable and unproductive.

"I'm concerned that the policies might fortify them, rather than ... reframe the menstrual cycle as the vital sign, as a normal biological process, as something not to be stigmatized, shamed, silenced and so on," she explains.

Quint says society is at a point now where "everybody has the right to ask or demand what they need."

"And what we need from society right now is an end to menstrual taboos," she says.

"One of the ways to get it may be to talk about it more, but pretending everything's great and that we don't have periods, it's taking us even further."

Listen to the debate at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sarah Evans and Willow Smith.