Periods can cause headaches and cramps and can put you in an overall really bad mood. These are reasons why you might be tempted to call in sick to work. But what if you didn’t have to? What if you actually got paid time off when your period was very painful and you were guaranteed to get paid to convalesce at home?
This may sound like a wild hypothetical, but it is actually a law that’s currently up for debate in Italy’s Parliament. If it passes, Italy would become the first country in the west to offer “menstrual leave” (Japan and China both have similar laws on the books).
Basically, the proposed bill allows women up to three paid days off work per month if their doctor gives them a note showing they suffer from serious menstrual pain. Economist Daniela Piazzalunga told the Independent that “Women are already taking days off because of menstrual pains, but the new law would allow them to do so without using sick leaves or other permits.”
Reactions to the proposed law have varied, with some criticizing the law as contributing to gender bias and hurting women’s prospects for employment since companies may hesitate to hire a worker who requires this accommodation.
Claire Zillman of Fortune, for example, argues that menstrual leave might hurt more than it helps. She points out that while Italian women have access to “female-friendly laws” (such as five months of paid maternity leave), in practice “almost one in four pregnant workers are fired during or right after giving birth, even though the practice is illegal.” Moreover, she notes that the percentage of women in Italy in the workforce is 61% compared to 72% on average in the rest of Europe. Asia’s experiences with the law might also be instructive. One Japanese woman using the pseudonym Kyoko told the Guardian: “If you take menstrual leave, you’re basically broadcasting to the entire office which days of the month you have your period.” She went on to say that she worried that taking the leave might even cause her to be sexually harassed (presumably during the days in which was ovulating).
Laws -- even well-meaning ones -- always have unintended consequences, and Japan, where the law has been on the books since 1947, has had over 60 years of experience with it. From the anecdotes I could gather, very few women took the leave in Japan. This is both because it’s not necessarily paid (employers have discretion about payment) and also because of the potential social costs.
As another Japanese woman explained, “I never took [leave], partly because my period was never that heavy, but also because I wasn’t aware of any of my female colleagues [taking it]. No one ever openly discussed menstrual leave.” If this is the case even among women, it’s difficult to envision women working in a male-dominated environment admitting to taking leave for this reason.
It seems that if such a law passed in Italy, a handful of women with very severe menstrual pain would benefit. However, other women would perhaps simply dial in sick to the office instead of having to explain the real reason they decided to stay home.