Italy might soon become the first Western country to give women an official “menstrual leave.”
The lower house of the legislature is currently discussing a draft law that would need companies to grant female employees three days of paid leave each month if they experience painful periods.
The idea of giving women time off for this kind of discomfort seems to be gaining cross-continental traction. In 2016, the Chinese province of Anhui joined the regions of Hainan and Hubei in announcing that female workers can take off one or two days for their menstrual cycles if they have a doctor’s note. Also last year, a company called Coexist in Bristol, U.K., introduced a “period policy” that permits women to leave work if they suffer from serious pain. And in 2015, Zambia passed a law that entitles women to take one day off per month with no notice or explanation due to menstrual bleeding, pain, or cramps.
By all means, let’s eliminate the taboo surrounding menstruation in the workplace and in society at large. The stigma is a matter of life and death in some cultures, where menstruating women are still expelled from communities, with sometimes fatal results. And access to paid sick days is a vital resource for workers who need time to remedy all kinds of sicknesses. The proposed law was hailed by some local media outlets as a positive step to help working women who suffer from cramps. The Italian edition of women’s magazine Marie Claire described it as “a standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability”. But the bill has also its critics, even among the working women it seeks to protect.
Asking employers to specifically accommodate women’s most mundane biological attribute, while helpful to those who suffer severe pain, seems overall like a regressive request, especially considering how far women have come without it. Moreover, these kind of policies threaten to demoralise women’s long-standing battle to discourage the notion that their natural cycle makes them weak or in any way less able.
Opponents of Italy’s proposal highlight another possible downside of the policy: Employers could use it as the basis for bias. It could discourage businesses from hiring women, just as a mothers-only maternity leave benefit does. Hire a man instead; he’s guaranteed to not take that time off.
That’s an especially critical consideration in Italy. Women in the country have access to female-friendly laws, but still face discrimination in the workplace. For instance, women are entitled to five months of paid maternity leave, but the national bureau of statistics reports that almost one in four pregnant workers is fired during or right after giving birth, even though the practice is illegal. Some employers go as far as to ask for signed, undated letters of resignation so they can terminate women without penalty if they become pregnant. Overall, just 61% of Italian women work, well below Europe’s average of 72%, according to The Independent.
In an ideal world, existing prejudice shouldn’t keep women from seeking labour force accommodations. But given how existing measures to help women are being misused, it’s hard to see the draft law as the “standard-bearer of progress and social sustainability” some commentators say it could be.