In February 2023, Spain became the first European country to guarantee “menstrual leave” for workers, joining several countries, mostly in East Asia, that have long done so. It has also become increasingly common for companies to offer paid time off to menstruators as a discretionary benefit. Reports on these developments are almost always accompanied by criticism from self-identified feminists voicing concern that the policies will spur discrimination against women or reinforce stereotypes about menstruators as incapable workers. This echoes earlier arguments over maternity leave.
In their groundbreaking book, Menstruation Matters, Bridget Crawford and Emily Waldman expose myriad ways in which workplaces can be inhospitable to menstruators, and they offer an extremely helpful introduction to the debate over menstrual leave. This Essay builds on their analysis to take a deeper dive into the issue. It argues that there are alternatives to leave that could address many of these problems without triggering the same concerns of backlash. These include effective enforcement of existing laws and regulations relating to restroom access, break time, and workplace accommodations for various health needs. Additionally, employers can provide free menstrual products in workplace restrooms to allows workers to handle periods with dignity—even when they start unexpectedly—and help destigmatize menstruation.
Even if these practices become routine, some menstruators might need to miss work when experiencing severe menstrual symptoms. The Essay suggests that rather than seeking menstrual-specific leave, advocates might join forces with the burgeoning campaign to guarantee adequate paid sick days for all workers. Menstruation is not an illness, but most such laws are written broadly enough to meet menstruators’ needs. This universal approach, designed to support a broader swath of workers, would probably be easier to pass politically, and it would be far less likely to result in workplace discrimination against menstruators.