Could Australia follow Spain by introducing national menstrual leave?

Period pain, especially at work, can be uncomfortable – even crippling – but experts say Australia needs less stigma and more businesses to step up if we want to follow Spain in introducing menstrual leave as government policy.

On Wednesday, the Spanish government approved plans to allow women suffering from period pain to take unlimited paid time off from work. The draft law still needs to be passed through parliament, but it’s the first government in Europe to get this far.

University of Adelaide senior law lecturer Dr Gabrielle Golding says several countries, including Japan and Indonesia, have introduced menstrual leave to varying levels of success due to the subject of menstruation still being taboo.

“We need to normalise conversations about periods,” says Golding. “We need to accept that it’s a thing that happens for women and that we can talk about.”

Without that acceptance, women will be too hesitant to use the leave.

“The problem that we have identified with [menstrual leave policy in] many of these countries is that women don’t necessarily feel comfortable taking the leave,” she says. “It might be for cultural reasons or that the leave is stigmatised, so I think the really important thing is that if it’s introduced as an overarching entitlement here, that it’s one that’s culturally accepted.”

“More companies can bring [menstrual leave] on board and normalise conversations around it. That’s when we’ll start to see a bit more traction.”Senior lecturer Gabrielle Golding, The University of Adelaide

The legislative process is slow and Golding encourages businesses to take the lead by consulting their employees. “More companies can bring [menstrual leave] on board and normalise conversations around it,” she says. “That’s when we’ll start to see a bit more traction.”

The Victorian Women’s Trust was one of the first organisations in Australia to introduce menstrual leave in 2017 as part of their broader menstrual policy. Employees don’t need a doctor’s note to access it, which executive director Mary Crooks says is an important difference from the draft Spanish legislation.

“We don’t actually require a medical certificate for the simple and fundamental reason that menstrual discomfort is not an illness,” she says. “The last thing you want to do when you’re having a bad day of cramping is go and make a doctor’s appointment.”

Across her team, which includes about 10 women, Crooks says 37 days of menstrual leave have been taken in five years. Employees are entitled to up to 12 days a year.

Crooks says the policy has been hugely beneficial. “Staff report being more productive and look after themselves better,” she says.

And there’s more openness about periods around the office. “It’s not uncommon for me to walk past and hear a couple of the younger women, for example, comparing which menstrual cups they think are better,” Crooks says. “There’s no awkwardness. It’s just become a facet of our lives.”

Future Super’s chief people officer Leigh Dunlop implemented a menstrual leave policy in January last year after a staff survey found that only 38 per cent of women felt engaged, versus 86 per cent of menOne suggestion was to introduce menstrual leave.

A second staff survey, issued about three months after the policy was established, found 71 per cent of women felt engaged. Dunlop says the significant improvement was partially a result of menstrual policy, for “fairly negligible” financial costs.

“It’s not uncommon for me to walk past and hear a couple of the younger women, for example, comparing which menstrual cups they think are better. There’s no awkwardness. It’s just become a facet of our lives.”Mary Crooks, Victorian Women’s Trust executive director

About 42 per cent of eligible employees at Future Super have used the policy, which allows up to six days a year. Dunlop says people usually take a few hours off as needed rather than a whole day.

“They’re using it for a couple of hours in the morning while they’re waiting for their painkiller to kick in, or they’re getting their work done then logging off a bit early.”

A key criticism of menstrual leave is that it could negatively affect women’s hiring prospects because employers may see them as bringing additional costs to their business. But associate professor in political economy at the University of Sydney Elizabeth Hill says that’s the same argument that was mounted against parental leave when it was first introduced as maternity leave in the ’70s.

“All these same arguments that are rolled out against menstrual leave, were rolled out against maternity leave, and there would be no one now, really, that would argue that,” Hill says.

“Parental leave is a critical workplace entitlement that produces diverse work, supports diverse workplaces, supports productivity and is an essential workplace measure for attracting and keeping the best talent.

“I expect we will see the same shift in attitudes and evidence about menstrual leave over the next few years as workplaces adapt to the needs of their increasingly female workforce.”

Despite momentum building, experts agree there is work to be done before Australia can introduce a national policy.

“We need a lot more research on the different models and their impact and evaluate the outcomes for both workplaces and for workers,” Hill says.

The Victorian Women’s Trust’s website has draft menstrual policy templates companies can use. Crooks urges employees to encourage their bosses to consider a policy. Crooks says: “From that, a more widespread, more uniform application is likely to grow.”

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 May 2022.

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