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17 May

Don’t give us “menstrual leave”, destigmatise sick leave

Employers won’t hire a woman who might need three extra days off a month.

By Emma Haslett

Three weeks ago I woke up early, got ready for work – then began vomiting. My period had started and, an hour after I woke, the pain was so bad I couldn’t move. I had experienced this level of agony before – when I was in labour: paracetamol didn’t touch the sides; over-the-counter codeine provided only slight relief. So I emailed my boss to say I had a “stomach thing”, then spent the day in bed, throwing up occasionally and staring into space, unable to eat or sleep or even turn over without groaning in pain.

A few days later, I happened to have a scan scheduled, and the consultant found a cyst so big it was completely obscuring my right ovary on the screen. She confirmed my suspicions: I have endometriosis, a chronic condition that causes significant period pain and affects around 1.5 million women in the UK. Mine is a relatively mild case – for some women, it’s so bad they choose to have hysterectomies.  

I bring this up not because I’m after pity (although tips on managing the pain are very welcome) – but because my diagnosis has come at the same time as Spain moved to introduce new “menstrual leave” legislation, which will allow all women to take time off work if they experience painful periods. Under the draft bill, women like me will be allowed three days off, as long as they have a doctor’s note – in severe cases, that leave can be extended to five days.

Ostensibly, many would think such a move is comforting for people like me – but I find the policy horrifying. I can’t imagine anything worse for the advancement of women in the workplace than legislation that effectively creates a risk for employers in which any female candidate they hire may work 15 per cent fewer hours (based on a 40-hour work week over a four-week month) than her male colleagues.

Women have spent years vying for equal pay and equal treatment in the workplace – to then assert that simply because we own a uterus, we need legislation to give us extra leave is deeply harmful. As a result, any employer that can’t afford to hire a candidate who may end up taking three days off a month will recruit male rather than female candidates. Ultimately, women – including those whose periods are fine – will lose out.

Don’t mistake this for an argument that we shouldn’t take leave during our periods: there was no way I could have worked on the first day of my last one. But instead of focusing on women, what we really need to do is improve sick pay and make it normal to take leave for any ailment – be it period pain, back pain or colds.

The pandemic (and the “pingdemic”) has taught us that dragging ourselves into work when we are sick is a terrible idea – your work suffers and you infect your colleagues – whose work then also suffers – ad infinitum. So how about this for an idea: instead of making “being born female” into a condition so unhealthy it needs legislation to defend us, we take another step in the realisation that workers are not robots – and simply destigmatise “taking time off”.

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