Aunt Flo makes it hard to get out of bed, let alone log eight or more hours in the office; and now, one country is acknowledging this. Italy might soon become the first country in Europe to offer menstrual leave; and if it does, companies will be required to offer women three days of leave every month to deal with their nasty periods. The lower house of Italy's parliament has just started debating the potential law, which certainly seems to be a step in the right direction. For many of us, periods mean feelings of nausea and exhaustion — feeling sick literally once every single month. Acknowledging this helps normalize periods in the workplace and is just a nice way to say to female workers, "Hey, you're on your period and that sucks. Take a few days off to binge-watch Girls and eat cronuts."
However, some are quick to point out that for Italy (and potentially the rest of us), this isn't necessarily good news. For starters, it's one of the worst European countries for female representation in the workplace, with just 61 percent of Italian women working (versus a 72 percent European average). Could period leave only widen this gap?
Furthermore, there's the concern that that this could actually encourage the negative (and untrue) stereotype that women on their periods aren't capable of handling their responsibilities. I can already feel the eye-roll from unknowing coworkers who are convinced that periods can't be that bad. (False! They're worse!) Women who are pregnant (or plan to be pregnant) are already at a disadvantage, with our own president saying they're an inconvenience to companies. Could the same happen with women and menstrual leave? Will employers and potential employers hesitate working with us out of concern for all the days we could possibly miss? We don't need to give businesses another reason to hire men over women.
Italy isn't the first to offer period leave. A nonprofit in England called Coexist introduced the policy in 2016, with director Bex Baxter telling the Bristol Post, "I have managed many female members of staff over the years and I have seen women at work who are bent over double because of the pain caused by their periods. Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not [consider] themselves as unwell. And this is unfair." Sound familiar? How many times have you just toughed it out? (A lot, I bet.)
She added that lining up work with the natural cycles of the body can increase productivity, despite misconceptions that time off can hurt businesses.
Several east Asian countries have also joined in. Japan started offering "physiological leave" for period pain just after World War II. Taiwan gave women three additional days of leave a year beginning in 2013. In Indonesia, women get two days of menstrual leave a month. South Korea started offering period leave in 2001.
Advocates of period leave make convincing arguments, namely that while both men and women can fall ill to the flu or migraines, only women deal with periods — so we therefore need extra sick days for it. The topic remains controversial, though, with some people concerned that it's a type of reverse sexism and could actually hurt the feminist movement. Women already face a gender pay gap in the workplace; and in an opinion piece for Forbes, writer Tim Worstall suggested that period leave could make this worse. "If we insist that one group or another has an extra set of costs associated with their employment then we’ll end up seeing the wages of that group fall relative to groups that don’t have those associated costs. The provision of paid menstrual leave will act in exactly this manner."
Amelia Costigan, director of nonprofit Catalyst, makes another intriguing point: Menstrual leave could undermine women's ability to be capable and competitive in the workplace; and instead, employers should just be certain to provide enough sick days, without needing to define why women (or men) are using them.
In an article for Slate, Katy Waldman further argues against menstrual leave: "Give us tampons in our bathrooms! Give us Midol in our medicine cabinets! ... Give us plenty of paid sick leave for those days when we 'are hunkered down under four blankets in soul-crushing pain,' as one of my colleagues puts it ... But don’t offer us paid period leave."
Is the compromise more sick days with no mention of periods, as Waldman and Costigan have urged? Or do we need to make periods known in the workplace? Does this all come down to the same problem that has always plagued us, which is the stigmatization of menstruation? At this point, it looks like there's maybe only one thing we all agree on: Periods suck.