This week on Girlboss, we're doing a deep dive on the ways that periods bleed into the workplace. Why is walking into a bathroom stall with a tampon shoved up your sleeve still the norm? Why don't we have paid menstrual leave yet? Aunt Flo, the red river, the crimson wave, that time of the month—whatever you call it, we're talking about it. It's about time we all Go With the Flow.
As with most radical ideas, the concept behind period leave is deceptively simple. Debilitating cramps that make it impossible to get out of bed? Take a paid day off. Heavy flow day have you paranoid about bleeding through your best business casual slacks? Work from home. Chest tight with PMS-induced anxiety? Take an hour in the middle of the day to meditate, no questions asked. It’s not even that novel a concept either: Cultures all over the world have had some version of a “menstrual hut” (with both positive and negative connotations) for millennia, and Japan has had the right to leave when you’re menstruating enshrined in law since 1947.
And yet, and yet. The number of companies in North America that offer period leave is so minuscule that there aren’t any good stats that track it, and when a company does decide to offer it—as, for instance, Canadian menstrual cup manufacturer Diva Cup did last year—it’s cause for a press release. You’re a million times more likely (rough numbers) to drop the tampon you’ve been hiding up your sleeve at the exact moment that Kenny from the mail room walks by as you are to work for a company whose HR handbook explicitly spells out that menstrual symptoms are an acceptable reason to take a sick day.
And that’s because shedding the lining of your uterus is not your average bodily function. “I worked as a lawyer in an investment bank for nine years, and talking openly about periods or taking time off due to menstrual symptoms just didn’t happen,” says Rachael Newton, founder of menstrual cup brand nixit. “From a young age, most people experience a learned shame around their period,” says Newton of the taboo that still exists, despite our era of red dye replacing the weird blue liquid in pad ads. “This unfortunately has trickled into the workplace, where generally speaking, people aren’t encouraged to acknowledge their periods—especially around people who don’t menstruate.” Which is absurd, she points out, when we live on a planet where 1.8 billion people—girls, women, trans men, genderfluid and nonbinary folk—menstruate. “That’s a huge population experiencing a similar phenomenon, and yet, we’re “othered” for it.” (Cue the old chestnut that if cisgender men bled from anywhere on their bodies for a week every month it would somehow be rebranded as a badge of honour, medals for bravery awarded for facing down those cramps, soaking through a super tampon in an hour shouted from the rooftops.)
At nixit, where period leave is part of a broader unlimited sick day policy, Newton has found that it’s had an unexpected side benefit: “Talking about my period and how it is making me feel or affecting me has made me much more open with [my team] about how I am feeling in general,” she says. “It’s like a gateway to better conversations. We don’t talk just about periods, we talk about all of the issues we are facing and dealing with. It’s made me more vulnerable to them, but also, I believe I’m a better leader for it.” Ridiculous or otherwise, periods—in all their visceral humanity and vulnerability covered up with layers of misogyny—are awkward to talk about in the workplace—and perversely, this could be part of the reason why making menstrual leave company policy could act as a gateway benefit to creating a more equitable, inclusive workplace for everyone.
“In general, there is an enormous gap for employers to understand the biological needs of their staff,” says Michela Bedard, executive director of Period, a non-profit that works to end period poverty and stigma. “Period leave is one part of that, but what about all the other hormonal fluctuations that humans go through, like menopause, or being a lactating parent after giving birth?” The mere acknowledgement that your employees have physical bodies that will affect their work, she says, is an incredibly powerful thing. “Something as simple as writing in the employee handbook that ‘discomfort related to menstruation is an acceptable reason for a sick time’ signals that this is an employer who understands that there are physical changes that happen to bodies who menstruate,” she says. “You need your employers to see you in your full humanity, and this could mean that you’re a menstruating, possibly birthing, person who doesn’t feel well.”
Also: “This is not a niche issue,” she continues. “We have more women in leadership, more women in the workforce than ever before. This needs to be addressed top-down in corporate America.” This is why, in fact, Period is launching a program that will highlight employers who are doing things to promote menstrual equity in the workplace—free period products available and readily accessible for employees, surveys that ask employees how to best address their menstrual needs, providing mental health education—and, crucially, normalizing terms like period leave. “Let’s get some CEOs using that term, not just youth activists and menstrual product companies,” says Bedard, who also posits that destigmatizing taking time off for your period could also make it easier, say, for men to feel comfortable actually taking the paternity leave their companies offer but they feel there’s a stigma around using. And If a company truly wants to “lead with equity,” as Bedard phrases it, this is a benefit that needs to be offered not just to white collar desk workers but to frontline employees as well, who arguably need this most. “This is just like period poverty, which disproportionately affects Black and Brown menstruators. Period leave is not an executive perk.”
The number of companies in North America that offer period leave is so minuscule that there aren’t any good stats that track it, and when a company does decide to offer it, it’s cause for a press release.
The precise crafting of a period leave policy, however, is incredibly important, says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder of Feminuity, a DEI consulting firm that has worked with companies (from startups to Fortune 500s) around the world on menstrual equity policies. “A menstrual leave policy can have a negative effect if the underlying sexist beliefs and attitudes, as well as other forms of gender-based discrimination, aren’t addressed,” she explains, pointing to the risk of “belevolent sexism,” which she says can see “menstruation is a sign of womanhood and feminine fragility, and works to reinforce the stereotype that women’s purpose in life is only to bear children.”
That’s not to say companies shouldn’t offer period leave (or parental leave, or pumping rooms, or flexible schedules for carers), but that it should also be accompanied by training on things like how to respect menstruating co-workers seeking these accommodations, not subconsciously penalizing workers for taking this leave by giving them fewer opportunities., and adding “menstrual discrimination” to their corporate anti-discrimination policies. Privacy also becomes important, she adds. “It’s such a double-edged sword,” Saska says. “You’re offering this leave, so is it something that is to be on someone’s calendar, or is it to be done covertly? That has its pros and cons, as it relates to benevolent sexism for women, but also for folks who are gender queer or trans men, it could be a pure safety issue,” she continues, nodding to the risks that this disclosure could have for someone who may not feel comfortable sharing this aspect of their identity in their workplace.
When it is properly implemented, however, Saska believes in the power of period leave to build better workplaces. “It can serve as a really good entry point, because it forces organizations to ask how they can build a workplace that puts a diversity of experiences at the forefront,” she says. “How are we looking at other stigmatized health conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome, certain mental health conditions, and lived experiences with HIV/AIDS?” As a female entrepreneur, Saska is particularly interested in how the conversation around period leave can open up the dialogue around menopause, which isn’t even on the radar for most employers. “In a world where women are viewed as depreciating assets, ageism is a critical part of the conversation,” she says, adding that —in theory—she can see a world where offering menstrual leave is just table stakes for corporations, purely because it’s just good business sense.
“The more people feel supported, and the more they feel they can be themselves, the better the quality of their work is going to be,” Saska says, who says companies can start with a period budget, which is a fund that helps employees purchase period supplies like cups, heating pads, weighted blankets or cycle tracking apps. “It can be a good entry point, and once leadership starts to see it's a good thing for recruitment and retention, it can help them understand the case for it.”
And once they’re convinced of that, the possibilities might just be endless.