In a memo shared with employees last week, Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal introduced menstrual leaves for the company’s cis and trans female employees. Calculating the probability of an employee menstruating over the weekend, the company is offering up to 10 days of period leave in a year. The concluding paragraph addressed the male employees, highlighting how ‘normal’ and painful menstruation is, and that they must not feel uncomfortable when a colleague avails for such a leave.
The existing perspective on menstruation, at workplaces, is almost like the adult equivalent of discreetly asking your school friends if they have a sanitary napkin or if they can help you hide your stained school uniform. However, the State Government of Bihar has been giving its female employees two days of menstruation leave since 1992. Earlier in 2018, two organisations, Gozoop and Culture Machine introduced menstrual leaves for their employees.
Menstruation is hard. It’s also different for each woman, with some experiencing pain in the beginning, some for the entire cycle, and some not at all. With this in mind, it’s about time that private organisations, especially those at the top, took relief measures for their employees, and to set precedent for other smaller businesses to follow. So, in that sense, Zomato, Gozoop, Culture Machine, and FlyMyBiz are potentially on the right track, with the best intentions. But, is there a possibility that the menstrual leave may backfire?
The policy of providing menstrual leaves is not new: Japan has been offering them since 1947, to safeguard women’s reproductive health. China, Zambia, Taiwan, and South Korea also have menstruation leave policies in effect. While sufficient evidence does not exist on the effectiveness of these leaves, if at all, it is possible that the effects may not be all positive. Menstrual leaves could potentially further ostracise women in their workplace as maternity leaves do, but at a lower intensity. Dan (1986) states that the Japanese women who availed for menstrual leaves experienced harassment.
Zomato’s introduction of the menstrual leave has created an uproar, bringing forth extremely diverse opinions. Surprisingly enough, several women are against the policy, because again, they believe that the symptoms are “not all that bad”, and women can just “deal with it“. While that may be true for some women, it is problematic to assume that it holds true in the case of all women, and this is exactly why the memo shared with Zomato employees states that one must avail for the leave only if necessary. A recurrent theme in arguments against the leave is its fairness in relation to men. Significant biological and hormonal differences do exist between menstruators and non-menstruators. But, do these differences make one group better, or more accomplished than the other?
There isn’t much evidence on menstrual leaves in the Indian context; however, Marathe & Raj (2020) explore the perception of menstrual leaves among Indian students. This analysis is of importance because the same students would comprise the future workforce. They find that 90 percent of the respondents, especially men, believe that women employed in labour-intensive jobs need the leave more than those employed in white-collar jobs. 64 percent of overall respondents support the menstrual leave policy. This is interesting because a large portion of ALL respondents believe that menstruation is painful and deteriorating, men more than women, and still all don’t support menstrual leaves.
Additionally, women in the survey stated that they would feel hesitant in availing for the menstrual leave. Greater number of male respondents perceived menstruation to be extremely painful; this can be an indicator of progress, particularly so because awareness is a step towards change. A qualitative study on adolescent Indian boys found that a small portion of the sample perceive menstruation to be a disease, and a majority of respondents’ knowledge about menstruation is obtained casually.
Since work cultures have changed, and are likely to continue changing in a post-COVID-19 world, with more people working from home, or having the option to, would there still be a need for a menstrual leave policy? Maybe an organisation can reduce the number of days they offer, and not take them away completely – just because employees are working from home, it does not mean that their experience of menstruation has changed. The burden of care work has fallen and continues to fall disproportionately on women, more so now. With this, having a menstruation leave could be of some relief. In organisations with the menstrual leave policy in place, the female managers must take them and be vocal about them.
Keeping the varied perspectives on menstrual leave aside, one can deduce that its presence is a marker for progress. However, the benefits on these leaves are being accrued by the formal sector female employees only. More Indian women are employed in the informal sector than in the formal. Menstrual leaves seem like an utopian dream for informal sector female employees, given that so many of them often have harsh working conditions, with very few or no breaks. This is all the more troublesome because informal sector jobs are more labour-intensive than those in the formal sector, possibly involving several hours of standing. This points to a greater need for menstrual leaves and provision of basic facilities in informal workspaces too.
Menstrual leave, just like maternity and paternity leaves, sexual harassment cells, gendered reservations, and others are tools to level the playing field and include more women in the workforce. This inclusion has both social and economic benefits. The above mentioned tools risk becoming simply performative if they are not accompanied with a change in perception. It is only a combination of these two that can increase autonomy of women in patriarchal societies.
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