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Our interviewee this week: You

Subscribers share their views on menstrual leave

Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in brief:

  • 🩸 Is menstrual leave a good idea? We asked, you answered.
  • 🎤 This newsletter hands the microphone to the readers who responded to our callout on period leave.
  • 📣 Some of you were pro, others were anti, but all had something valuable to share.

Read on for more. And if you want to be up-to-date on feminism worldwide, follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

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Two weeks ago, I asked subscribers to this newsletter what they thought about menstrual leave, following Spain’s decision to introduce the policy – a first in Europe. When I wrote the newsletter, I knew menstrual leave was controversial and that feminists had a range of views on whether it represents a step forwards for women and gender-diverse people, or a step backwards. But I was not prepared for the richness of the responses I would receive from readers.

So many of you took the time to dive deep into my questions, sharing your hopes and concerns, your ideas and your personal experiences of work and menstruation. I could not let these missives sit alone in my inbox, to be read only by me.

So this week, in place of our usual interview, I’m handing the newsletter over to you. Here’s a selection* of your answers to our questions: What do you think about menstrual leave? Does your employer offer it? Do you/would you take it? The brilliant artist Lucie Macaroni has illustrated some of the responses.

Thank you to everyone who wrote, and thank you to all of you who read the Impact newsletter. And please, if you ever have anything to share about what you read in any of our newsletters, never hesitate to hit reply.

*Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

“If it’s conditional on medical advice, it seems to me to be a false solution” – Anne-Sophie

I’m answering the call for responses about menstrual leave, not because I have an opinion but precisely because I don’t have one and I share this debate inside myself. Since it is about pain, it is about feeling.

And since it is about feelings, I can only judge mine. I have a hormonal IUD. I don’t like it, but it’s practical (one of my many contradictions): I don’t have my period and no more pain, I feel my cycle only because I know myself and I can read the evolution of my moods. For me, there is no need for menstrual leave. But for me a few years ago, when I had my first period and before I took the third generation pill, it wasn’t the same story. I was in so much pain that I was throwing up. A bit like my husband when he had appendicitis at 27 – vomiting from so much pain. I’m not talking about endometriosis, just a girl’s period pain.

I don’t know if a specific leave of absence should be introduced: it’s already a feat to get an appointment with a GP within 48 hours, so if it’s conditional on medical advice, it seems to me to be a false solution. Should this pain be known, recognised, shared and not silenced? YES, a big yes. Should managers in companies be trained and made aware of it? YES also. Should all of us be able to adapt our time and our way of working when we are faced with it, without necessarily needing medical advice? Yes also. This is the world I dream of. We are far from it, but I can still dream.

“A step forward for women’s rights” – Stella

I think menstrual leave is a step forward for women’s rights. There are many women who have very painful periods and would love to have this option. Unfortunately, my company does not offer it. I wouldn’t take it now, because my period is not as painful as it was when I was young. When I was young, I would have taken it, because I had really painful periods and I took painkillers systematically.

Translation: “I think menstrual leave is a step forward for women’s rights. There are many women who have very painful periods and would love to have this option.” Illustration by Lucymacaroni.

“It should not be considered different to other pain” – Stéphanie

I would not take menstrual leave for all the reasons mentioned in your newsletter: it’s too intrusive, and possibly a source of discrimination.

I don’t see why menstrual pain should be the subject of a form of sick leave which, because it names the reason for being on leave, sets it apart from other types of leave. Menstrual pain should not be ignored, but it should not be considered as different from other pain either (we did not invent “back leave” for people with lumbago…).

Perhaps it is at the medical level that these pains should be taken into consideration by being more attentive and also by raising awareness. How long did we have to wait for a campaign to raise awareness about endometriosis? And I’m sure that still, not everyone is aware of this disease, precisely because of the taboos surrounding menstruation.

“It seems very important that the right exists in the labour code” – Isabelle

I am currently a consultant in the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence. I was until last June the Health and Safety Director in a company for many years. Menstrual leave was never a subject we worked on, wrongly of course. The difficulties of working during menstruation were ignored for a long time, just like everyday sexism.

If menstrual leave had been in place, I would not have taken it personally, not being concerned with the difficulties of working during this time. On the other hand, it seems very important that the right exists in the labour code to allow women to take this leave if they need it, so that they don’t have to come to work without being physically, and therefore mentally, able to do so.

Then there are the possible consequences of reinforcing gender discrimination. Will women dare to take this leave at the risk of being classified as less efficient than men? Will these women be discriminated against like women working part-time?

Translation: “There are as many ways of living with menstruation as there are menstruating people and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that stereotypes come from people who don’t bleed from their uterus several days a month.” Illustration by Lucymacaroni.

“There are as many ways of living with menstruation as there menstruating people” – Aurélie

I think this leave should be made possible in France. My reasons are that menstrual disorders of any kind are often synonymous with a struggle to be recognised and even more so to receive appropriate treatment – the universal answer is too often the pill! It seems that doctors forget that this is a hormonal contraceptive with many side effects.

Unfortunately, there can be many reasons for enduring painful periods (not being able to go to the doctor, not being treated properly…) so I think it’s important to support menstruating people by allowing them to take days off. Menstruating people should be able to do as they wish (paid leave, teleworking, adapted schedules…) without being stereotyped, because there are as many ways of living with menstruation as there are menstruating people and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that stereotypes come from people who don’t bleed from their uterus several days a month.

I also insist on the words “menstruating people”, because I imagine that if one day a law were to pass on the subject, it would contain the word « woman » and we all know how discriminating and problematic this is, as it renders a whole section of the population invisible.

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In any case, my opinion remains that menstruating people should be able to do what they want without conditions (justification, duration, having their private life made public…) or judgement (not to mention endless cycles that last several weeks), but here we are, living in a world that has more to change than just the issue of menstrual leave.

“Keeping the subject taboo will not help us find solutions” – Eloïse

Not all companies are yet ready to welcome this kind of change, particularly from the point of view of management, as this study from October 2022 may suggest:

  • 66% of female employees are in favour of menstrual leave in companies
  • 64% of the women concerned could use it
  • 66% believe that a company offering menstrual leave would be more attractive
  • 65% of employed women have already experienced difficulties related to their period at work
  • 82% of employees fear that menstrual leave could be an obstacle to hiring or advancement for women

Unfortunately, yes, there is still a risk of discrimination and stigmatisation, but keeping the subject taboo will not help to find solutions. I think we need more awareness and education on the subject. 53% of female employees have painful periods. Painful periods are abnormal, yet many women (and men) trivialise them and take a pill to get over the pain. Better awareness of the causes of pain and the solutions to consider could help reduce this pain. Not all pain and disorders are necessarily related to chronic diseases such as endometriosis or PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), even if these diseases affect 1 in 10 women on average.

If we don’t give women the keys to long-term treatment and just give them painkillers or put them on the pill without trying to understand the source of the problem, we’re just sweeping it  under the rug.

I am perfectly aware that there are grey areas, and that menstrual leave is far from being the ideal solution, but it can allow some women to live better with their periods and to suffer less from their pain – I am thinking in particular of women suffering from endometriosis, some of whom are obliged to resign or to start their own businesses because their employers do not offer a solution to adapt their working conditions.

Translation: “In an environment where we already suffer greatly from sexism, I don’t see how to approach the subject with men who think from the start that our opinions and our skills are worth less than those of our male colleagues, that we always have a problem?” Illustration by Lucymacaroni.

“I don’t see how to approach the subject with men” – Cassandre

I am a PhD student. Outside my doctorate, I have been employed by universities for assisting with coursework and teaching. I have of course been « charged » with various other tasks for which I was not paid and for which I was contacted at the last minute, it being « part of the role of a doctoral student » to be available (for free) at all times.

How to take leave in this case? How to resist the social and psychological pressure exerted by thesis and department directors (more often men than women)? We are expected to work every day (at least 10 hours a day) for all the long years of our PhD. Taking time off during the summer vacations is already a psychological ordeal for me and for my female colleagues especially: you have to overcome the guilt (of not being able to write your thesis and thus being perceived as lazy, an impostor, a freeloader and so on) but also the anxiety of not being able to answer emails and thus the fear of missing an opportunity (which will be offered to someone else who is faster and more available).

As for menstrual leave … From a theoretical point of view, I would like to take a real leave of absence because I suffer from endometriosis that keeps me in bed for three days a month, sometimes a whole week. I would like to be able to say officially « these next few days I’m unavailable, I’ll answer you when I get back » and to be able to say to myself, « No, in fact I am in too much pain, today it is out of the question that I take my computer out, that I put it on my stomach and my knees and that I write my thesis from my bed with my brain completely fogged up by the pain or the painkillers. » How do you take real time off when you can work from home too?

From a practical point of view, in an environment where we already suffer greatly from sexism, I don’t see how to approach the subject with men who think from the start that our opinions and our skills are worth less than those of our male colleagues, that we (women) always have a problem and, above all, where taking maternity leave and thus postponing a thesis deadline is already refused by majority-male committees on the basis that « it will teach her and it will make her stronger, so she will wake up earlier to be more productive » (true story).

In a macho and masculinist environment, how could we prevent this becoming a way to further denigrate women and people who have a painful and disabling menstrual cycle? To exert an additional social but also psychological pressure which would lower the glass ceiling to the  floor? So, for the moment, I deal with it myself, catching up on the backlog of work during weekends, evenings and vacations.

“It must be a real alternative, not a way of exerting pressure on women” – Virginie

Period leave could increase stereotypes about women in the world of work. But for some women, periods are really painful, and I’m one of them. It never lasts my whole period but there are always one or two days when I feel down and tired. It’s not like I need to go to the doctor – I’m not sick, but I’m not in my best shape either and I would just want to stay home in my pyjamas.

With the Covid crisis we’ve been through these past few years, we know that working from home is totally possible for most of us. This could be an alternative for women who don’t want to go out during their period. For those who can’t work from home, I think period leave should be considered. But it must be a real alternative and must not become a way of exerting pressure on women. Once again we can see the non-feminists and their preconceptions about women. Lazy girls! As if it is so nice to be in so much pain, curled up in bed with so many different symptoms depending on who you’re talking to.

So, yes, I’m pro-period leave! But it needs to be thought through, and women must be a real part of the creation of this law.

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