Menstruation in the Workplace: The Menstrual Leave Debate

Addressing Menstruation in the Workplace

By Ekam Sidhu

Conceived as a means to re-imagine workplaces as less patriarchal, more human, and more equal, menstrual leave has long sparked fierce debate about gender equity in the workplace. With feminists on both sides, the question at the core of this debate is whether menstrual leave policies — allowing employees time off if they are unable to work due to menstruation — would ultimately benefit or disadvantage a menstruator’s well-being. 


Let’s take a look at both sides. 


The motion: Menstruators should be entitled to menstrual leave in the workplace. 


For the Motion

Some proponents of menstrual leave argue that menstrual leave policies have the potential to promote the well-being of menstruators in three key ways: by supporting menstrual health, de-stigmatizing menstruation, and furthering discussion on workplace accommodation. 


The vast majority of menstruators experience mild, moderate, or severe discomfort from menstruation. Some even experience menstrual cycle-related illnesses such as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, and dysmenorrhea. In a cross-sectional study consisting of 762 participants, 71.5% disclosed that their menstrual symptoms moderately affected their daily lives. This periodic discomfort is only exacerbated by menstrual stigma that renders the discussion of menstrual distress socially unacceptable — a thing to be kept a secret from coworkers and bosses alike. Thus, menstrual leave may grant menstruators the time to recover, seek treatment for their symptoms, and, most notably, engage in open conversation about issues related to their menstrual cycle in the workplace. Normalizing discussion regarding menstruation in the workplace works to destigmatize it and promote menstrual awareness. 


Furthermore, discussions surrounding the implementation, efficacy, and possible ramifications of menstrual leave policies incite further, more general discussion on workplace accommodation and culture. How else can we design workplaces to promote inclusivity and the wellbeing of the diverse individuals that constitute it? Some argue that the establishment of similar policies for other stigmatized health conditions, such as HIV and mental illness, can prevent gender-based discrimination and other adverse effects of menstrual leave policies. These policies may be even more effective when coupled with relevant training for employees and the inclusion of menstrual discrimination in anti-discrimination policies. 


Against the Motion

In the study discussed earlier, 49.3% of participants thought that menstrual leave policies would have only negative effects. Though well-intentioned, menstrual leave policies could have adverse unintended consequences for gender equity. And possibly undermine the wellbeing of menstruators in the workplace by perpetuating sexist attitudes and stereotypes of female unproductivity. 


Since time immemorial, societal expectations of women have been related to domestic duties. As a result of this, female absence from work is often ascribed to their gender role and menstrual leave may perpetuate stereotypes of women as unfit for the workplace. In that sense, menstrual leave policies can be manipulated as a means to justify discrimination in hiring and promotion practices. Thus, menstrual leave policies may undermine the career development progress of menstruators and contribute to the lack of women’s advancement in the workplace. On the other hand, women may actively choose not to use menstrual leave to avoid judgement by non-menstruating co-workers and/or in the pursuit of gaining workplace advancement. 


So, what’s next?

Researchers and employers continue to explore the many dimensions of menstrual leave policies to better understand whether the benefits outweigh potential drawbacks, how potential drawbacks can be mitigated, and ultimately devise the optimal approach towards addressing menstruation in the workplace. This research must accommodate varied menstrual experiences by diverse menstruators. Future research must also be intersectional. 


Ultimately, menstrual leave policies will only promote menstruators’ well-being in spaces committed to smashing stubborn menstruation taboos and dismantling gender-based oppression. It is only when underlying sexist attitudes and menstrual stigmas are addressed that menstrual leave policies may be a viable approach to accommodating menstruation in the workplace. Thus, for menstrual leave policies to truly advance gender equality, menstrual stigma needs to be actively challenged both inside and outside of the workplace.  


How will you play your part in dismantling menstrual stigma — as an employee or employer, co-worker, and fellow human?