Menstrual leave. About bloody time.
For what feels like eons, women have fought hard for equal rights in the workplace. Pay equity and parental leave were no brainers. Equal representation of women on boards was a logical step. The eradication of sexual harassment was, from my personal experience, astonishingly late to the party. However, compelled by #MeToo it’s lead to better workplaces for women.
However still… still… it feels like something is missing. We aren’t quite there yet.
“Menstrual taboo is the last piece of the equality jigsaw,” says Mary Crooks, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT).
Aha. There we have it. Mary’s evocative power statement elicits goosebumps, and the same rousing buzz one feels when they do indeed find the last missing piece of a jigsaw.
It’s enlightening interviewing Mary. Yes, she is accomplished — appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for her distinguished services to public policy and advocacy of the advancement of women. In addition, speaking with Mary is like being on the vanguard frontline. Change is in motion. To quote the brilliant book, About Bloody Time:
“A menstrual revolution is happening, and we have the chance to build the kind of infrastructure that will see it liberate all women and girls from the injuries of the menstrual taboo, and make the whole of society healthier, happier and more harmonious.”
In practical terms, what does this “liberating infrastructure” look like? The Victorian Women’s Trust Menstrual and Menopause Wellbeing Policy provides an impressive blueprint.
“Our policy is designed to provide opportunities for restful working circumstances and self-care for employees experiencing symptoms of menstruation and menopause,” says Mary.
Introduced in 2017, the policy has three parts, accounting for an increasing scale of severity of symptoms:
- The opportunity to stay in the workplace under circumstances which encourage the comfort of the employee eg. Resting in a quiet area, or working on a laptop from a couch with a hot water bottle.
- The possibility of working from home. If an employee wakes up and knows, through their symptoms, it would be tough to turn up to work but that they could still be productive, they’re allowed to work from home.
- The possibility of taking a day’s paid menstrual leave. In this case, employees are entitled to 12 paid days per calendar year (pro-rata, non-cumulative) in the event of inability to perform work duties because of menstruation and menopause and their associated symptoms.
The VWT also provides free menstrual products in its workplace bathroom if anyone is caught short.
Brava! After all, menstrual leave is accepting a simple proposition: Why would someone apply for sick leave when menstruation is not a sickness?
“Menstrual leave strips away the pressure on a woman that she has to hide stuff, make up stuff, ring her supervisor and say: ‘I’m sick I can’t come in to work.’ Women should not feel embarrassed or awkward about their periods and symptoms. Menstrual leave is not about being egotistical or self-centred; it’s taking stock of where you are at in your cycle; it’s about listening to your symptoms. There’s a majestic process going on in there,” says Mary.
It's time to unpick the period stigma, shame and ignorance that has been so woven into our societal DNA. Over the next several years, corporations, businesses and non-governmental organisations are going to start taking important baby steps, and with every baby step incrementalism trends in the right direction. And with baby steps Australia is heading in the right direction. Future Super and Modibodi, for example, have introduced menstrual policies.
Spain recently announced plans to legislate menstrual leave. Mary says the move is to be commended, however, unlike Spain, the VWT policy approach does not require staff to provide a doctor’s certificate.
“If you’re doing it tough symptoms wise, the last thing you feel like is hauling yourself to your GP. It’s a trust relationship,” says Mary.
So, about this trust thing. Is menstrual leave open to, dare I ask, exploitation?
“Over the five years we’ve had the provisions we have granted about 36 days of paid menstrual leave. Our policy has created such a sense of openness and mutual support among our staff. The other day I heard a couple of the youngies discussing which brand of menstrual cup they should use!” laughs Mary. She pauses and adds with her oh-so-warm, likeable dash of humour: “When I was their age I was still trying to figure out which end of the tampon to use!”
Does menstruation leave have its detractors?
Like any revolution, of course there are haters; some from an unlikely source.
“Some older women did kick back. They had the ‘Suck it up princesses, just soldier on’ approach. They did it tough in their day and no one supported them, kind of thing. This is not just a patriarchal problem. Women are complicit by acceptance, by being passive agents in perpetuation of this stigma or taboo. But unless you push back and identify a different paradigm, you stay within the paradigm,” says Mary.
“One of the benefits of our policy is women now to tend to take better care of themselves. Instead of soldiering on they are managing self-care and are better workers as a result.
On a grander scale, having a supporting working environment has a positive flow on benefit for everyone.
“It’s much better to nurture and keep good staff. High staff turn-over is costly and ultimately damaging. Having a positive menstruation policy is how you will rust on progressive, hard working women as staff. If you can keep good women working alongside good men then the benefits are immense,” says Mary.
“The wave has started. The thrilling things is, there’s no turning back."