Spain is poised to be the next country to offer menstrual leave to workers.
The Telegraph reported Wednesday that Spain is set to offer three days of menstrual leave to women with severe period pain. The proposed policy will be voted on at a cabinet meeting next week, along with a measure to offer sanitary pads in schools.
“If someone has an illness with such symptoms, a temporary disability is granted, so the same should happen with menstruation ― allowing a woman with a very painful period to stay at home,” Angela Rodriguez, Spain’s secretary of state equality and gender violence, told El Periodico.
Spain is not the first country to try menstrual leave, and this benefit alone is not enough to combat menstrual stigma
Many people have reported productivity losses due to managing a period. About 14% of women in the Netherlands, for example, reported missing work or school over their period.
Spain will be the first country in Europe to offer the benefit, but menstrual leave has already been in place in Japan, parts of China, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia, plus offered by a handful of private sector companies.
But in order for such policies to be helpful, people who need menstrual leave have to feel free to use it. One focus group of women in Taiwan reported that they rarely used menstrual leave for reasons including that no one they knew had ever applied for it, there were other leave policies that might apply, nobody could take over their jobs, and their organization needed a doctor’s receipt as proof.
And although menstrual leave has been a legal right for Japanese women since 1947, the social stigma around drawing attention to one’s period cycle persists. As one Japanese woman told The Guardian in 2016, “If you’re trying to prove yourself in a man’s world, you’re not going to take menstrual leave in case it’s interpreted as a sign of weakness.”
“My concern is that if these menstrual leave policies are implemented without simultaneous efforts to de-stigmatize menstruation, then we run the risk of reinforcing menstrual stigma,” menstrual leave researcher and psychology professor Jessica Barnack-Tavlaris told HuffPost. “In an ideal world … if we had a shift in our work culture, then people would be able to take off when they need it. They would have enough sick days to take off for whatever reason that might be.”
Menstruation itself is not a disorder, but there are illnesses like endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, fibroids and chronic illnesses that can be exacerbated during a menstrual cycle. “That difference needs to be clear,” Barnack-Tavlaris said. “Otherwise we feed into this myth that people who menstruate can’t function, are emotionally unstable, are unfit for the workplace. Those are myths that I don’t want to be reinforced.”
Barnack-Tavlaris led a U.S. study for which participants where asked about the possible effects of a potential menstrual leave policy in the U.S. When asked if they would support a menstrual leave policy, only 42% of participants said yes. Although many said that such a policy could help menstruators’ well-being in the workplace, there was also concern that the policy would be unfair to men, that people would abuse the policy to skip work, and that it would lead to discrimination and make men be seen as more favorable employees.
One person specifically worried that “men would be much more offended and would purposely not hire women because a missed day is given every month.”
The logistics of how a policy is carried out could also be an area where more harm is done than good. Barnack-Tavlaris said it is common for the language of menstrual leave policies to either not specify or specifically designate women as the beneficiaries.
“Not all people who menstruate are women. And people who menstruate who don’t identify as a woman, their employer may not know that they menstruate and that they don’t identify as a woman. Say that person really needs to use menstrual leave ― do they really feel like they can use it if using it means outing themselves?” Barnack-Tavlaris said. “There has to be some way of deciding employees can use it, so that inherently means there would have to be some disclosure, so that can be pretty problematic depending on the relationship between the employee and the employer.”
It goes to show that making a menstrual leave policy is a good start, but it is just the first step in helping workers have flexible work arrangements that support their well-being.
“Integrating these policies needs to happen along menstrual education,” Barnack-Tavlaris said. “All of this can help de-stigmatize menstruation, and make it so people actually want to use it if they need to use it. ... There is having it available, and actually feeling like you can use it. Those are two different things.”