Menstrual Leave: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 

menstrual leave
Zheng Qinwen of China is attended to during the women's singles fourth round match against Iga Swiatek of Poland at the 2022 French Open May 30, 2022 in Paris, France. Shi Tang/Getty Images

When Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen took to the court during the French Open in May 2022, everything was going in her favor. Zheng had just won the first set in a match against Poland's Iga Swiatek, the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, and was headed for a major win. Instead of going straight into the second set, Zheng was forced to take a medical timeout, then returned with subpar play. What had been expected to be a career-changing moment was over. The issue? Menstrual cramps.

"I cannot play tennis," Zheng told reporters, including news service Reuters, as she exited the court. "It's a girls' thing, you know. The first day is always so tough and then I have to do sport and I always have so much pain in the first day. I wish I could be a man on court, but I cannot ... I really wish I can be a man so that I don't have to suffer from this."

Zheng's menstrual pain admission sparked widespread conversations about the effects of menstruation, not only on professional sports players, but also women in workplaces all over the world.

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Menstrual Leave

For Zheng, and any woman with a uterus, menstrual leave policies could help modernize our collective response to a biological function that has forever affected the lives of women worldwide. Companies enacting menstrual leave policies are part of a burgeoning push not only to acknowledge the pain and inconvenience of menstruating, but also to offer women a way to take time off without dipping into other forms of paid or unpaid time off.

Menstrual leave not only pushes back against various taboos around periods, but also shifts the future of work for women. "It's incredibly painful to have a uterus, and yet, from a young age, we're taught to push through this pain and keep working," Sonya Passi, CEO of Chani, a Los Angeles-based app company, told The Washington Post.

One of Chani's employee benefits is "unlimited menstrual leave for people with uteruses."

It's a move that makes sense to many, considering women comprise 40 percent of the global workforce and that 20 percent of women experience the extreme pain known as dysmenorrhea at the onset of their periods.

Cicinia, a U.K.-based fashion company focused on wedding and bridesmaid dresses, started giving its female employees at least one day every month to rest if they are experiencing dysmenorrhea.

"We considered the well-being of our employees," says Jean Chen, co-founder and chief operating officer of Cicinia, in an email interview. "This small step of allowing them to take menstrual leave increased their productivity. Not just that they were able to rest, but they also feel cared for by the company. That's why they become more committed to what they do."

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Meanstrual Leave Around the World

While menstrual leave has existed in various forms around the world for decades, it's still rare in large global economies, including the United States. Some period protections are legislated in countries like Japan, which, for example, has by law allowed unpaid menstrual leave for the last 70 years. South Korea's female employees who menstruate are offered leave during their periods. In Taiwan, women are granted three days of menstrual leave per year, in addition to sick leave. Women in Zambia can sue an employer if they are denied a day off each month for menstrual leave.

In some countries menstrual leave is not law but is considered a best practice for private companies. India, for example, has several notable private enterprises that offer female employees menstrual leave.

Spain is poised to become the first country in Europe to grant menstrual leave to women — and offer state-funded pay to boot. It's something that some job sectors in Russia have been offering since 1922, although how it fares today is up for some debate.

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A Critical Perspective

Critics point to the potentially negative implications of menstrual leave policies, such as "perpetuating sexist beliefs and attitudes, contributing to menstrual stigma and perpetuating gender stereotypes."

"It is common knowledge that when women are suffering from menstruation ... it is always better to allow your female employees once in a while to avail of this leave than suffer their mood swings, which might also affect the productivity of others," says Juan Dominguez, CEO of The Dominguez Firm based in Los Angeles, in an email interview.

Although predicated on, and perpetuating, the problematic, age-old and, many would say, blatantly sexist stereotype that women turn moody and difficult to work with when menstruating, Dominguez's remarks encapsulate the masculine stereotype that helps to fuel the debate.

"Menstrual leave is a current hot topic in my company," says Alex Smith, the CEO and recruiting manager of e-commerce company Luckybobbleheads, in an email interview. "We are in the process of deciding whether to give our female employees a menstrual leave or not."

Smith worries that menstrual leave "will almost certainly mean that women face more obstacles because employers will be even less likely to hire them."

The issue, Smith says, lies in distinguishing menstruation pain from other sources of discomfort, like migraines.

"[Menstrual leave] unnecessarily associates menstrual pain with womanhood and paints all periods with the same brush when, in reality, only a small percentage of menstruating people experience such severe cramps," says Smith. "These women deserve to be cared for and supported, and their pain should not be underestimated — but this is not the norm for menstruation. This 'othering' of women and focus on gender reinforces the prevalent idea that women are delicate flowers who are fragile, incapable and incompetent. It will also reinforce the idea that menstruation fundamentally alters a woman's personality and transforms her into a grumpy monster."

For those already offering menstrual leave, including Cicinia, the results have been even better than expected.

"Menstrual leave built transparency in our workplace and made our employees more confident," Chen says. "Employee retention increased. It actually helps in recruiting women."

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