MPs are wrong to think the idea is progressive
Earlier this month Spain became the first European country to offer paid menstrual leave, an idea that is gaining traction among UK MPs who are keen to be seen as progressive by making businesses more female-friendly. Labour is already talking about a menopause action plan in an attempt to help women to stay or return to the workforce (one survey found that one in ten women between 45-55 years old had quit their job due to symptoms), and several charities are now calling for those with painful periods to have three days off a month.
The problem is that menstruation and menopause are not disabilities. Women should not suffer in silence, and we need genuine empathy, understanding, and flexibility in the workplace. But is paid period leave really the answer? Such a policy could easily be weaponised as a way to discriminate against women: why hire and promote women of child-bearing age, who already have the “inconvenience” of maternity leave, but now also the luxury of monthly time off?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this policy would feed into this narrative that periods are synonymous with pain, and that it is “normal” for women to suffer with intense symptoms every month. It is not. Anyone who is incapacitated by period pains to the point they cannot go to work is medically unwell and should go to a doctor (who would hopefully provide a sick-note anyway).
Too often, we tell women and young girls that feeling awful on your period is just an unfortunate, inevitable biological reality, and therefore the pain shouldn’t be of concern, treated or investigated. Phoebe Waller-Bridge summed it up in Fleabag when she wrote, “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny – period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.”
Yet if we dismiss and diminish our pain, then the medical establishment will too. Endometriosis, a condition that affects about 10% of women of reproductive age, can be completely debilitating, and yet the average time for a diagnosis is eight years. One survey in the US found that 75% of women with endometriosis were initially misdiagnosed with another physical health problem, while half were told it was due to their mental health. Despite the severity of the symptoms, 75% said they would not go to a doctor if they were suffering, either because they considered painful periods to be a normal part of life or because it was not serious enough to bother a doctor with.
If MPs and businesses really want to be seen as progressive and inclusive, why not prioritise research into the myriad conditions – endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, zinc deficiency, magnesium deficiency – that cause 40% of women to say periods regularly affect their work? Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated to reproductive health, despite the fact that one in three women in the UK will suffer from a reproductive or gynaecological health problem.
There are five times as many studies into erectile dysfunction (which affects 19% of men) as there are into premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women. It is exactly this kind of oversight which means that the contraceptive pill is prescribed as a temporary mask for so many conditions — PCOS, heavy periods, acne, migraines — rather than dealing with the root problem.
We currently have a record number of people on sick leave, a record number of working days lost to sickness, and a record number of job vacancies. Women are disproportionately represented in all of those, but too often political short-termism means that we focus on managing the symptoms rather than tackling the cause. We don’t need special categories for sick leave: we need serious conversations about what is holding women back, both physiologically and socially.