An event space in Bristol, England is attracting international attention this week after announcing that it will host a meeting about menstrual leave policies in the workplace. Alexandra Pope—the author The Wild Genie: The Healing Power of Menstruation—will lead a half-day seminar at the event space Coexist about “the emerging new field of menstruality” and “a radically new model of the menstrual cycle as an asset for your entire organization.” The team at Coexist hopes to “begin creating a policy and begin test driving it in our organization” after the seminar takes place.
Even though Coexist has not yet actually written or implemented its own period policy yet, it’s garnered headlines like Huffington Post’s “U.K. Company Offers Women Time Off During Their Periods.” If I had to hazard a guess, the confusion about Coexist’s heretofore nonexistent period-leave policy stems from comments that the magnificently named Bex Baxter, a director at Coexist, has given to the press. Baxter told the Bristol Post,
I have managed many female members of staff over the years and I have seen women at work who are bent over double because of the pain caused by their periods.
Despite this, they feel they cannot go home because they do not class themselves as unwell.
And this is unfair. At Coexist we are very understanding. If someone is in pain—no matter what kind—they are encouraged to go home.
But, for us, we wanted a policy in place which recognises and allows women to take time for their body’s natural cycle without putting this under the label of illness.
Baxter is of course right that some women experience terrible menstrual cramps, and that people should be able to go home when they’re in pain without fear of professional repercussions. But creating a formal period leave policy is simply a bad idea, one that, as my colleague Katy Waldman persuasively argued in 2014, substitutes gender essentialism for fair, rational workplace policymaking.
Here’s the short version of the argument against period leave: It’s oddly reductive, narrow-minded, and patronizing to assume that all women experience debilitating pain during their periods. It ought to go without saying that not all women are the same. Some women, both trans and cis, don’t get periods at all! Other women bleed lightly for a few days without experiencing terrible cramps. Women who don’t have debilitating menstrual cramps might, however, have other health problems that they would rather use their sick days on. This is to say nothing about men who might reasonably come to resent their female colleagues for taking advantage of benefit unavailable to men. Why offer special time off for a particular problem a minority of employees have instead of offering a generous sick leave policy that everyone can take for any reason they need to?
The answer, according to Baxter, is that menstruation doesn’t fall under the “label of illness”—which is both true and misleading. Yes, menstruation is a healthy part of adult female life, and it shouldn’t be pathologized. Then again, dysmennorhea—debilitating menstrual pain—can and absolutely should be treated by doctors, rather than endured as some kind of self-sacrificing rite of passage. And Baxter’s approach to menstrual leave seems to be based on a magical understanding of menstruation that her employees may or may not share. Here is the most telling part of the Huffington Post article about Baxter, as far as I’m concerned:
“When women are having their periods they are in a winter state, when they need to regroup, keep warm and nourish their bodies,” she said. “When a woman is in her ‘spring’ phase immediately after a period she can do the work of three women.”
This is, needless to say, insane. If my boss expected me to do three times much work in the days following my period, I’d much prefer to keep the timing of my menses private, thanks.