Employers Breaking Taboos

Does it perpetuate the stereotype of the weaker sex, or does it address the specific needs of women? The conversation about menstrual leave revolves around these two central points. It is virtually non-existent in Poland yet, even though the first companies have already introduced a menstrual leave policy for their female employees.

‘We have touched upon the issues of the normalisation of menstruation, menstrual poverty, and menstrual health before. And my stance is that if you want to see something change, you need to start with yourself – so I started with my business.

We aim to create an empathetic, supportive environment, and I wanted to help people who menstruate, which is why I came up with the idea of a menstrual leave’, said DGP Anna Ledwoń-Blacha, creative director and founder of the creative agency More Bananas.

‘Before we officially announced the introduction of menstrual leave, our employees had been taking days off due to menstrual problems. The turning point for us was when we realised they felt they had to ask for permission. We thought it wasn’t fair. We want them to know that it is their right. You cannot demand from someone to work at full blast when their body says no. And if you are given one day to replenish, you can work more efficiently on the following day’, added Anna Dużyńska, co-founder of Spa Verde studio.

When your body says no

Most women (between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the study) experience menstruation as something very uncomfortable. This includes not only abdominal and back pain, but also nausea, diarrhoea, the need to urinate more frequently, bouts of breathlessness, irritability, impaired concentration, slower reactions, sometimes even fainting. Yet, although a half of the population menstruates, the period is still considered an embarrassing topic. According to a 2020 study commissioned by the Kulczyk Foundation, about one in three women tried to make sure no one knew about her period, and one in four believed it was a woman’s weakness.

Spa Verde (a business that employs 10 women) based its solution on trust. ‘Every person is entitled to one additional day off per month. We do not keep a calendar. We do not calculate days. If you do not want to introduce menstruation leave for fear of it being abused, you should ponder what it might be that you do wrong that makes you expect it from people’, emphasised Anna Dużyńska. Trust is also mentioned by Marta Lech-Maciejewska, owner of the fashion brand Spadiora. ‘I informed our female employees they can take menstrual leave when they feel the need to do so during their period. We are a small, family-owned company, where efficiency matters much more than the actual number of hours worked’, she added.

The More Bananas agency (which employs 20 people, roughly the same proportion of men and women) needed to adopt a resolution and related regulations in order to implement menstrual leave. The agency’s female employees are now entitled to take one day of paid leave per month. They can take it on request, just like leave. The leave is optional. If not used, it may not be carried over to the following month or exchanged for payment. “I consider this solution mainly as one targeted at people who menstruate, however, I think this kind of company policy should be widely communicated. Having open conversations about it supports normalisation of menstruation. Hearing about menstrual leave might make someone think about the arguments behind it. And eventually we can start talking about the period normally’, emphasised Anna Ledwoń-Blacha.

‘It’s part of life’

A desire to break the taboo that additionally limits women’s activity is one of important reasons for introducing menstrual leave. When Indian food supplier Zomato decided to introduce menstrual leave in 2020 (10 days of paid leave per year for women and menstruating trans people), the company’s President Deepinder Goyal sent an email to all employees stressing that requesting time off due to menstruation should never be associated with shame. In his communication to employees, which was published on the company’s website, he also addressed men directly. ‘When they inform you they are on a menstrual leave, our female colleagues must not feel uncomfortable. It’s part of life’, he pointed out.

‘We are eliminating the taboo around menstruation and easing the pain that some women experience. When it comes to women’s labour rights, we are forging a completely new path’, stated deputy mayor of the Spanish city of Girona, Angeles Planas, when the city council adopted a menstrual leave policy for municipal employees last year (up to eight hours a month, which must be made up for in the following three months).

This was, in fact, the first regulation of such kind in the public sector in Europe. Italy was the closest to implementing a systemic solution after having debated paid menstrual leave in parliament in 2017. Eventually, the initiative was abandoned. However, this type of leave has existed in labour law in Japan and South Korea for several decades, although it has rarely been used. The social stigma associated with menstruation turned out to be stronger.

Leading through differences to equality

The concept of a menstrual leave that must be made up for, like the one in Girona, is a compromise. It was influenced by those who believe that emphasising differences between men and women will make things worse for the latter. Their argument is that any special regulations concerning pregnancy, breastfeeding or menstruation will in reality lead to women being less available for work, which is one of the reasons why employers are less willing to employ them.

At the same time, their opponents argue that it is not women who need to adapt to a work environment designed for men, it’s the work environment that needs to adapt to the needs of half of humankind. From this perspective, recognising differences and addressing makes for a friendlier workplace and increases productivity and efficiency. This was the position taken by the Indian company. In his e-mail to employees, Deepinder Goyal explained the policy as follow: ‘Zomato understands that men and women are born biologically different. Our job is to provide space for biological differences without lowering the bar for the quality of work.’


By Anna Zaleska

Picture: pexels.com

The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl on 20 January 2022