Menstrual leave is becoming one of the solutions aimed at women. This is usually one extra day off per month that can be taken if you have a problematic period. It is hard to ignore the reality of the fact that menstruation is not commonly discussed. How do you make such a change successfully?
The relevant practices are already developed as part of what we call diversity and inclusion management. Such a change, however, should be based on ensuring dignity and a sense of justice.
What do you mean?
Without a sense of physical safety it is hard to even assume any mental comfort or security, not to mention being invested in work. Unrestrained access to restrooms that are comfortable and not far away, a right to take breaks to use them and access to menstrual pads. These are some of the ordinary needs of women, which – whether they’re satisfied or unmet – have a significant impact on my sense of dignity. It doesn’t really matter whether we are referring to working at an office, in a factory, or a retail chain.
Yet, when you introduce a change that differentiates between groups of employees, which in this case means that women are entitled to an extra day off per month, the organisation must ensure that all employees feel it is a fair solution based on solid grounds. Women and men are simply different, and there is a solid body of studies on menstrual-related complaints and their impact on women’s functioning. We need to explain this and provide space at the same time to people who may raise concerns.
The organisation sets the rules of cooperation and communication. The organisation in aware of its culture and whether it values things such as empathy, support, understanding, or whether some people might bring up arguments about unfair treatment.
It can be therefore assumed that the more consistent a company is in its activities aimed at different groups of employees at risk of discrimination, the more smoothly it will be able to introduce new changes such as menstrual leave.
Yes. Obviously, from a company’s perspective, it may be more important to direct its attention to one group rather than others at a specific time, but if instead this is part of the corporate diversity policy, there is less of a chance that people may feel one group is favoured at the expense of others. Some organisations, for instance, offer mentoring programmes only for women, and this does not raise objections or concerns among other employees.
In this context, a company’s internal organisational culture is even more important than legal regulations. Take regulations on breaks for breastfeeding women, for example, and yet breastfeeding in the workplace is almost unheard of. Or you have provisions on parental leave for fathers but their use is minimal. Although legislation can provide tools, how these tools are used depends almost entirely on the organisational culture.
So let’s take a company that is introducing menstrual leave. It fits the organisation’s business philosophy but it also provides space for those in doubt to voice their objections. How should the company respond to them?
The company should not only respond, but more importantly, it should provide a framework for discussion. The company states: ’This is consistent with our values, it is important for us’. So, if necessary, it should also provide knowledge. The better you know and understand something, the more open you are. Women in senior positions, managers, lead their employees by example so they might show others that they are taking menstrual leave. Also, the organisation must monitor the implementation of its policies – it is a sign that changes are taken seriously. It should respond when the implemented solutions are not used and when they are abused.
At the same time, you should not assume people would be opposed to menstrual leave. An analysis of menstrual leave introduction by the UK-based organisation Coexist showed that men were not only not reluctant, but they actually appreciated open conversation about menstruation. Many men took this as permission to talk about their health, too.
What about the preconception that women are less available and therefore less effective or less capable as leaders?
The era of hierarchical cultures is over, even though this may not yet be very visible in Poland. A management style based on empathy, encouraging participation, works better since it increases the company’s adaptability to changing conditions and its ability to absorb innovation. Scandinavian countries are a good example in this area.
Performance is not dependent on the leader’s gender but on how the organisation develops its solutions. Varied styles of operation can lead to the same very positive results. The company’s success can only be contributed by employees who are emotionally and physically well. This is possible when the organisation includes the perspectives of different groups, i.e., when it has a policy of supporting diversity and inclusion.
This is yet another devil’s advocate argument: emphasising differences only deepens divisions.
The policy I talk about is not about flaunting differences, but rather about developing effective business solutions to support the physical and mental comfort of employees, which translates into their commitment and productivity. It is possible if the organisation can recognise sensitive needs and address them. Menstruation in this context is treated as a time when an employee is particularly vulnerable, so we need to include this issue in the general conversation about supporting diversity and ensuring physical and mental well-being in the workplace by shaping a culture that makes space for such vulnerable moments in an employee’s life.
Dr Monika Sońta, Department of Management in Networked Societies, Kozminski University
Interview by Anna Zaleska
The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl on 20 January 2022