Last month, the announcement by a Mumbai-based company stirred up a huge discussion in corporate India. I am referring to Culture Machine, which declared its new leave policy- First day of period leave. Women employees in the organization have the option of taking leave on the first day of their menstrual cycle.
An interesting move indeed, one that sparked debates among men and women alike. Curious to know perspectives and views, we carried out conversations with a cross-section of professionals, across age-groups and functions. We were keen to understand if the policy was received differently by different genders, as well as uncover the perspectives of line managers and HR practitioners, and most importantly, the perceived challenges in its effective implementation.
Some welcomed this policy, and viewed it as a necessity, applauding the pioneers for their bold and gender sensitive move.
In contrast, majority of the women we spoke to were quite undecided on how they viewed the policy. While they agreed that periods are a reality of a woman’s life, they did not think it warranted a leave every month. The key reasons cited for these were: Periods are not that simplistic, as every woman experiences it differently. Some have a difficult pre-menstrual cycle throughout, while some others experience extreme discomfort on the second day and not so much the first (myself included, let me add). In complete contrast, some women experience minimal discomfort, which makes the leave quite redundant for them.
The varied experiences would, in turn, lead to another complication- that of biases. The popular perspective was that women who do exercise this leave would be viewed less favorably than those who do not.
Added to this was the view that when women return to work post the first day of period, there was a possibility that she would be under greater scrutiny for mood swings, lower productivity during the cycle, etc.
A couple of women did categorically say it was a ‘silly’ move, and feared that it would have an adverse impact on how women are perceived by their team members. They viewed the policy as an attestation that women are the ‘weaker’ sex, who require more support than their male counterparts, in order to succeed.
Barring three women, most said that it would be embarrassing for them to be open about having periods, as this is a private affair. They mentioned that periods were a topic of discussion only among the female members in their families. Open discussions on this with male members did not take place. The thought of discussing it with their male colleagues or just going public made them feel uncomfortable.
While these women did view the policy as being ‘interesting’, they did not think they would exercise the option. In case they do need leave, they would prefer to take a Sick leave rather than a Period leave, even if the option was available to them!
This was the most engaging part of the debate amongst the women, especially HR members. Most HR women professionals opined that this leave should be clubbed with sick leave. Sickness is a condition that leads to discomfort for a temporary duration, exactly what happens during the menstrual cycle. So why should it not be part of sick leave?
Non-HR professionals did not view having periods as being ‘sick’. They mentioned that it is part of a natural cycle that occurred every month. Therefore, giving it a ‘sick’ title would be inappropriate.
Interestingly, there was no age-wise differentiation in opinions. The other interesting piece was the unanimous view among women that the policy could be grossly misused by women!
Male members, not surprisingly, took a diplomatic response. They appreciated the policy for its progressive nature. Upon further probing, however, they were unanimously on the fence about their true opinions, which were similar to those of their female colleagues.
All of them mentioned that it was not a question of a leave policy. Rather, it was a question for the society to consider, which currently treats having periods as a crime, and the women as untouchables during the cycle. They felt that a societal upheaval was required before having periods was considered normal and natural, not something to be hidden.
In conclusion, we do think that this is a significant move, one which has opened up conversations around a biological process which is a fact, but has remained ignored till date. It has also paved the way to mainstream discussions on the menstrual health of women. Dysmennorhea is a reality in the lives of many women. In addition to the physical stress, women may also be experiencing emotional stress during the periods. Being able to take leave without embarrassment will help take the load off, leading to higher productivity and focus when they return.
However, the implementation of a Period Leave needs deeper consideration. Given the varied experiences of women, we suggest that any organization keen to extend this leave to its women employees creates a cluster of additional leaves titled ‘Period Leave’, available to a woman employee for a maximum of 6 to 8 days during the year. This will give the employee flexibility in taking the leave as per her specific needs. She may require more than 1 day off on some months, and some others may not require to take any leave at all. A cap can be put in place for the total number of days that can be taken at a stretch. In case of additional days required, it can be taken from any of the other leave clusters available.
Following the first year of its implementation, the organization can review the policy based on the actual usage and trend of number of leaves taken in a given month.
In addition to this, it is equally important that through various communication tools and channels, employees are sensitized to the medical and health facts of periods. This can be done in the form of mailers or newsletters around the announcement of the policy, that provide information on periods and Dysmennorhea and most importantly, how different women experience it differently. This will help drive the message that periods do not lead to productivity loss, and that women don’t need to be treated differently during this time. Also, it will address any biases that are formed against women who do exercise their right to take the leave, as some others may not be taking it.
Such information sharing will also help normalize periods rather than treat them as the taboo that it is today. Highlighting and sharing of stereotypical myths about periods will also be useful. For example,the myth that all women have mood swings or pre-menstural syndrome. “Oh she’s having periods, what do you expect?” conversations can be avoided by such fact sharing.
Equally women and men need to be cognizant of the fact that ‘period conversations’ may not be comfortable to all employees alike. Therefore, care should be taken that additional biases are not created. For example, in case a man expresses discomfort in talking about periods, he should not be labelled as being ‘uncool’ or something similar. Rather, efforts have to be made to create awareness that helps bring about a change in mindset. Conversations on unconscious biases, mental models, and gender stereotypes will aid in such awareness building.
Companies could also make offices more comfortable for menstruating female employees so that their productivity is optimized. They can create a wellness room or space where take some time off to rest or work comfortably.
Well, as we conclude, we are keen to know of Culture Machine’s experience a year down the line. Do write to us with your views on this topic, and of course, the perspectives presented in the article.