Period Leave – Progressive or Regressive?

Swapna Narayanan

Earlier this month, we had a major announcement in the corporate world by one of the progressive new generation companies – Zomato – that has opened up a Pandora’s Box. Zomato is a 4000 employee strong company, 35% of which are women.

‘At Zomato, we want to foster a culture of trust, truth and acceptance. Starting today, all women (including transgender women) at Zomato can avail up to 10 days of period leaves in a year,’ announced Zomato Founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal.

While this is not the first time that a company is announcing such a policy, it has triggered a sharp debate among women on whether this is a progressive move, mere tokenism, or a regressive move. And as with things all and sundry, the social media has been agog with views.

While, at Eyra, we are still undecided, we bring to you the various perspectives and would also like you to share your views with us.

Appreciating the CEO’s intent, several women’s rights activists and social media users welcomed this policy and termed it as a ‘progressive’ move that was long overdue. Adding transgenders into the fray won many a hearts too.

However there are many women who are angry, and call the move discriminatory and anti-feminist. Most of them feel that the move could turn out to be more regressive than progressive and this policy might further deepen the existing gender gap in the workforce, sparking hiring bias, lesser pay, and slower promotions for women.

I do not think the policy as a blanket is a good move,” says Dr Sejal Ajmera, Senior Gynaecologist and Director, Indian Academy of Vaginal Aesthetics. “For years, we have been trying to bust period myths, and prove that women are fully capable of giving their complete potential physically and mentally during the periods. There is no need for isolation.

The reality is menstruation and menstrual hygiene, despite all attempts in recent times to start a dialogue and spread awareness, has remained a closed-door conversation in India. And due to the stigma attached to it, women and transgender people have often shied away from talking openly about their periods or  painful periods. Per the American Academy of Family Physicians, nearly 20 percent of women in the world suffer from menstrual cramps so severe that it can interfere with everyday activities.

In my own work team, I do encounter at the least one woman taking a sick leave due to painful period every month.

The celebrated journalist Barkha Dutt, was categoric in her tweet, “Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism and want period leave. PLEASE. (sic).

This is one of the strongest arguments against paid period leaves – the fear that the policy might hinder the progress on ‘equal pay for equal work’.

The other thing hideous about the idea of period leave is how it turns a normal biological experience into some sort of monumental event, gendering us at the work place when we have fought so hard to not be gendered,Barkha Dutt continues.

Untitled51_20200829191156 (1)According to a study by the British Medical Journal, due to extreme period pains, a woman loses at least nine productive days on an average, every year. So, those complaints of period cramps are not really “dramatic” and have nothing to do with a lower threshold for pain.

In this context, Zomato’s period policy comes as a breather from the unnecessary humiliation and stigma. Recently, writer Twinkle Khanna took to her Twitter to express her view and said, “Are we really saying we can’t give women leave or the prospect of working from home for that one day? My opinion of gritting our teeth and bearing it, fighting our biology so we can say we are as good as men has changed over time. We are equal, not identical #EqualNotIdentical.

Her #EqualNotIdentical hashtag did give some food for thought for the people still divided. And is a welcome change in a world where women are uncomfortable talking about periods with their own family members. Medical stores and pharmacies are still packing the sanitary products in brown paper, and everything is so hush hush about the menstrual cycle. Moves like these will help men and women deal with and accept the fact that half of the population has periods, can have problems with it, and we need to deal with it together. 

Kavita Krishnan, a CPI (ML) Politburo member, and Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, feels that places of work should be reshaped to acknowledge these social divisions which will help people be more productive. She thinks that women are more creative around their period, whereas meeting deadlines and doing certain kinds of work may not be what those particular women choose to do at the time. And this is about women, menstruating people, people with a variety of different abilities and disabilities. She further explains with an example: we say ramps should be in place so that people with wheelchairs are able to access these places. Would that be biological determinism? Would we say then that biology is coming in the way of equality?

There are many who feel that employers too can explore options other than granting period leave. “They can inc­rease the number of casual or sick leaves for their female workforce. They can leverage technology wherever possible to offer telecommuting and work-from-home opti­ons,” says Rituparna Chak­raborty, ­president of the Indian Staffing Federation.

On the face of it, the option of ‘menstrual leave’ seems like a great idea. No one who faces cramps and pain should be expected to work and should be able to take the day off,” said Inga Winkler, a lecturer in human rights and director of the Working Group on Menstrual Health and Gender Justice at Columbia University in New York. “The reason the concept of ‘menstrual leave’ is controversial is the broader context of the society we live in – a society characterised by huge gender inequalities, where women earn less, are perceived as less capable and, in particular when menstruating, are seen as ‘hysterical’, not trustworthy and unfit for decision-making,” Winkler said.

Barkha Dutt also expressed concern that a right to menstrual leave will give employers another reason to discriminate against women workers and can be counterproductive when female participation in the workplace has fallen sharply over the years, and is at just 23.3%.

Untitled52_20200829191143 (1)Many believe the trend is discriminatory, as it creates a distinction between male and female employees. The equal footing that women seek to achieve will no longer be a possibility since women will have an additional ten days of leave, say those against this move. A section believes that Zomato’s move implies that women are not strong enough to work during their periods. They add that an equal leave of some sort be given to men since they will be ‘picking up the slack’.

But, I think a key point that is getting missed out is the fact that a good amount of the Zomato workforce are employees on the road, on the move, delivering food to the customers.

Periods are not a choice that people make. When equality in a workplace is being discussed, it should be equality in working conditions and painful periods do not offer the same working conditions to those who menstruate as those who don’t. Women should not deal with their pain simply because menstruating is a taboo or that menstrual pain is seen as an exaggeration.

Additionally, offering period leaves does not mean that every woman will opt for the leave.

Eyra would like to know your views.

What do you think about the period leaves?

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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