Column: Would ‘menstrual leave’ create a backlash against women in the workplace?
Last week, Spain signaled it may become one of a handful of countries offering workers a benefit called “menstrual leave” for people whose periods are accompanied by debilitating pain.
In 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products such as tampons and pads free to anyone who needs them.
If any of these things strike you as minor or simply symbolic gestures, I assure you they are not.
The average period lasts several days, the products are relatively expensive, and plenty of people find themselves in what is called “period poverty,” where they can’t even afford pads and tampons, taxed or not.
At a moment when our ultraconservative Supreme Court wants to make the lives of American women hell by forcing them to bear children they do not want to bear, it’s especially reassuring that some countries, and some states, value women enough to make their lives easier, not more difficult.
As far as I can tell, the concept of menstrual leave has never been seriously considered by American employers. I doubt it ever will, either. Menstruation is not a medical condition or disability, so giving it special workplace protections could backfire. Frankly, I don’t think it would be a positive development for women, who already face a double standard in many workplaces. Yes, many women experience illness related to their monthly cycles — including dysmenorrhea and endometriosis — but I doubt many would want to wave the red flag at work.
“We know that sexism still exists; we know that menstrual stigma is a thing,” said Jessica Barnack-Tavlaris, a psychology professor at the College of New Jersey who studies people’s attitudes toward menstruation and their impact on health and well being. When she tells people what she does, she told me, some are fascinated, but many cannot change the subject fast enough.
A new law bans forced arbitration for workers who have been harassed or assaulted. It’s one of the more significant workplace reforms in U.S. history.
She thinks menstrual leave could have a positive impact on the lives of menstruators, the preferred term these days for people who have periods, which can include transgender men and folks who consider themselves nonbinary. (In 2017, the Guttmacher Institute estimated, around 500 transgender or nonbinary individuals had abortions.)
But not much is known about how such leaves would work and whether they would create backlash against women in the workforce.
“We don’t have a work culture that supports people taking care of themselves,” she told me. We have a culture that promotes working even when sick, a phenomenon researchers call “presenteeism,” the opposite of absenteeism.
We do know that there remains a ridiculous amount of stigma, shame and downright sexism attached to menstruation. (Ladies, if you find yourself a man who is unabashed about buying tampons for you, keep him.)
Many of us have lasting scars related to our periods.
I will never forget my mortification in middle school when a friend picked up my plastic double-tampon holder, said, “What is this, a toothbrush?” and opened it in front of a crowd.
Or my embarrassment — and anger — years later when a male colleague visiting my home walked out of my bathroom and said, “You keep a box of tampons next to your toilet? That is disgusting.”
In 1986, Gloria Steinem lightheartedly explored gender role reversal in an essay titled “If Men Could Menstruate.”
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“Clearly,” wrote Steinem, “menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. …Generals, right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (‘men-struation’) as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat (‘You have to give blood to take blood’ ),” or “occupy high political office (‘Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?’).”
Meanwhile, academic research confirms the near-universal stigma that attaches to menstruating women.
A 2003 study by Milliken University researchers found that both male and female college students rated a menstruating woman as “more impure, less sexually desirable, more irritable” and neurotic than a non-menstruating woman.
In 2002, Tomi-Ann Roberts, a Colorado College psychology professor, and her colleagues came up with a clever approach to studying how menstruating women are perceived. In front of participants who were misled about the study’s purpose, a woman would “accidentally” drop one of two “highly feminine” items from her handbag. One was a hairclip, the other was a tampon.
Both male and female participants viewed women they thought were on their periods as less competent and less likable than women who were not.
“It appears, then, that women’s widespread concern about concealing their menstrual status is at least somewhat justified,” the researchers concluded.
And not that you would really need a study to confirm this, but it’s pretty obvious that one of the fastest ways to undermine a woman’s credibility is to accuse her of being on her period.
In 2015, Fox News host Megyn Kelly unleashed the wrath of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump by reminding him during a debate that he’d called women he didn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.”
The next day, he told CNN, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Later, he claimed he was talking about her nose.
Yeah, sure he was.
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