Why Women Deserve Period Leave

The case for Period Leave is compelling.
It may well bring more women into the workforce.
But the concept will likely be hostage to the whims of enlightened companies, notes Kanika Datta.

Should companies provide for it or not?

In India, the question hinges on well-known knowns: Societal attitudes, opinions of male bosses and employees, and respect for women’s privacy.

Growing women’s participation in the workforce over the decades has meant that women’s reproductive systems have increasingly exercised corporate managements.

Witness the eye-rolling discussions on how to manage when women were inconsiderate enough to go off on extended maternity leave.

In 2017, some FAANG companies offered women employees the opportunity to freeze their eggs at company cost.

This perk, they explained, was designed to give young women more flexibility to plan their families around their careers, and save thousands of dollars for those who had chosen private options to freeze their eggs.

No surprise, the announcement created an uproar.

Conservatives said such offers privileged careers over families. Supporters said it simply gave women a choice, no compulsion involved.

In between were those who suggested that in making the offer in the first place, companies were trying to influence a deeply private choice.

It is important to note that all these opinion groups included women.

The uproar over egg-freezing underscored like nothing else the polarisation over the issue of women’s bodies and the workplace.

Period Leave (PL) policies can hardly be expected to pass without fierce controversy.

The concept exists in Russia, China, Japan, Mexico and Indonesia and Spain. In some of these countries, the objective is protecting fertility levels rather than empowering women.

In some developed countries, corporations have taken the initiative to introduce this benefit.

In India, it’s mainly smart tech start-ups, such as Zomato, Byju’s, Swiggy and a handful of others that have introduced it, one encouraging exception being Malayalam media giant Mathrubhumi.

In general, the rarity of PLs suggests that managements have to work through the issues it involves.

In principle, all working women of child-bearing age think it would be great if they were given a day or two off to cope with the discomforts of this monthly biological cycle: Cramps, headaches, irritability.

Many women spoke of the deep distress of travelling in crowded public transport during this time.

But, but, but…

The first issue: Misuse. Most men think women will take advantage of this leave to skive off each month.

Surprisingly, some women think the same way. Misuse is a valid problem, for sure.

There are lucky women who romp through menstruation and menopause with nary a cramp or a hot flush and have no need for time out.

Equally, there are scores of others who suffer debilitating effects.

In between are women who have some discomfort and would appreciate a bit of time off.

This is especially true for women who juggle work and household duties from which most Indian men abdicate.

The second issue: Structure and parity. HR experts and senior management may argue that women can as well take a couple of days of casual leave or medical leave, especially since the latter can be taken without a doctor’s certificate for up to three or five days.

This is the route currently followed by women who routinely suffer during their periods.

But either option puts women at a disadvantage to men, since it means they use up more leave than their male colleagues and may have less left for other contingencies.

The more workable solution could be to add a modest number of PLs (say, two per month) to the quota of extra CLs for women employees.

Alternatively, women could be given the option for working from home for a certain number of days per month. This works for women in white collar jobs but not for those who work in factories, health, retail or hospitality.

Which brings us to the third issue: Privacy. Two related factors are at play here.

First, menstruation is still considered an embarrassing topic for public discussion in India.

Second: Women would hesitate to apply to their male bosses for PLs or PL-related work from home.

If there was ever an argument for bringing more women into managerial roles, this is one of them.

At the same time, the institution of PLs could well encourage male bosses to view the issue more openly and empathetically.

On the whole, the case for PLs is compelling. It may well bring more women into the workforce. But the concept will likely be hostage to the whims of enlightened companies.

Millions of women who work in the unorganised sector — from construction and factory workers to household helps — will probably remain outside the purview of this benefit.

The irony in India is that there was a time when menstruating women were relieved of household duties for the duration and kept apart, since they were considered unclean.

This process, though humiliating, offered a rare respite each month. Now modern Indian working women would love a similar break, though for more progressive reasons.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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