Bex Baxter was horrified to walk into her office one day and find her firm’s receptionist “bent double” at the front desk, “white as a sheet and clearly in pain” while serving a customer.

“I immediately went to excuse her from her shift,” says Baxter, then a director at the company. “She was really embarrassed and shooed me away, saying, ‘It’s just my period, I’ll get through it.’”

Menstrual leave already exists in several countries but has been widely criticised as counterproductive

Up until then, Baxter hadn’t even considered whether her former employer, a Bristol-based firm called Coexist that creates community spaces in South West England, had a corporate ‘period policy’.

But in that moment, she says, she thought about basic human rights — that a standard biological process should never be shameful.

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Menstrual leave, a policy that affords women suffering extreme period pain one or two days off work, already exists in several countries around the world, but has been widely criticised as counterproductive, often reinforcing negative stereotypes of female workers.

In some Asian countries, including Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea and certain Chinese provinces, women are allowed to stay home for a designated part of their monthly periods. Few take advantage of it, though, many citing fear of sexual harassment or perceptions of weakness.

And when the Italian parliament considered introducing national period leave in March, many wondered whether eligibility for three paid days a month off risked discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place.

Taboo topic

Stigma around periods – the idea that menstruation is dirty, shameful and unmentionable – can keep girls and women away from school and out of the workforce. For example, a woman without access to sanitary products may have to stay at home during her period, while a garment worker risks losing her job for getting up to change her pad before break time, provided there are facilities for her to manage her menstruation at all.

One study suggested that people viewed tampon-toting women as less competent, less likeable and physically off-putting

Even women working in office environments with conveniently located toilets and flexible schedules go to great lengths to hide periods: relatively few researchers have explored how knowledge that a woman is on her period affects her public perception, but one 2002 study suggested that people viewed tampon-toting women as less competent, less likeable and physically off-putting.

Yet women now make up nearly 40% of the global workforce, and up to  20% of women experience extreme cramps at the onset of a period – a condition called dysmenorrhea, which is intense enough to derail their daily lives. For these women, menstrual leave might represent relief, but not if it holds them back professionally. So how do we make it work?

If open conversation erodes taboos, period leave at least offers one way to get people talking

“Corporate business needed to be re-educated [about] menstruation, reframe its purpose and allow women to be women without any stigma,” says Baxter, who has left Coexist but remains an advisor on Coexist’s period policy.

Period drama

Persistent stigma means women suffer in silence: according to a poll BBC commissioned from YouGov in 2016

  • More than half of those surveyed said period pain interferes with their jobs
  • Only 27% felt comfortable telling their boss what was wrong

If open conversation erodes taboos, period leave at least offers one way to get people talking. The challenge is finding a way to implement it that isn’t detrimental to women’s participation in the workforce.

Putting it in practice

How a company does that depends on its size and structure, but there are a few key ingredients. Language is one, says Lara Owen, a consultant on menstruation and menopause in the workplace and a PhD candidate at Monash Business School in Melbourne, Australia.

Menstrual leave is a loaded term, one that may cause people who have never experienced severe cramps to make unfounded assumptions; namely, “that women are going to get free time off for something that isn’t really a problem,” Owen says. Instead of “menstrual leave,” she prefers terminology that conveys accommodations for people managing periods in the office, rather than simply sending them home.

Eden King, an associate professor of psychology at Texas’ Rice University who focuses on workplace discrimination, agreed that for-women policies can backfire. King suggests removing gender from the equation entirely might allow dysmenorrhea sufferers to get the break they need.

A policy that singles out a particular group as needing extra care, as being somehow weaker, does have a potential for backlash

“Offer flexible leave policies for all workers in your organisation, so that people can take leave when they’re sick, no matter what the reason,” she says. “That puts everybody on the same footing, whereas a policy that singles out a particular group as needing extra care, as being somehow weaker, does have a potential for backlash and perpetuation of gender stereotypes.”

However, if part of the point of ‘period leave’ is to break down taboos, why swerve the word menstruation? Menstruation isn’t an illness, Owen points out. On the contrary, a regular cycle typically signifies health. While flexibility is crucial, she says, periods might make sense listed under a company’s acceptable reasons to take personal leave.

Naming the problem boldly and proudly and with no embarrassment is the way to address stigma and it can take a long time,says Lisa Schechtman, director of policy and advocacy for WaterAid America. But women must be involved, she adds.

“These sorts of policies cannot be designed by men for women. The affected people always, always need to participate in designing, implementing and monitoring a programme around menstruation.”

Baxter aims to do all of this: soliciting feedback from employees, she is helping Coexist craft a policy will recognise that a customer-facing employee might have different needs to a woman sitting in the back office.

Next month, Coexist will announce a new kind of menstrual policy. Baxter says female workers will be allowed the flexibility they need to integrate periods into their professional schedules.

Working closely with Owen, Baxter wants to brand periods as a positive – “a tool for optimum health and vitality,” she says.

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