In mid-2013, the Trust began a research project around menstruation and menopause. Called The Waratah Project, we wanted to explore the lived experiences, central issues and what would it take to see the end of the stigma, negativity and disconnect which seems to still cast a long and wide shadow over the narrative around menstruation and menopause. An online survey of 3,400 people (across Australia and globally) as well as 22 discussion groups across Victoria gave us valuable insight from listening to those who had experienced menstruation and menopause.
Throughout 2016, we have been processing the survey results, doing an in-depth analysis and developing an accompanying narrative which is only a few months off.
One survey result that stunned us was that 58 per cent of respondents who have menstruated said that a day off to rest would make their period a better experience every month. Also, 26 per cent of those who had gone through menopause said that being able to take time off when needed would have helped their transition. 24 per cent of those surveyed also said that being able to ask for what they need from their employer would make their period a better experience.
Photo Credit: Rupi Kaur
This work forms the backdrop to our menstrual policy which we have been trialing for the past year. It all started quickly – a new staff member who had only been with us for three weeks announced mid-morning that she had her period, was doubled over in pain and couldn’t stay at work. We all know that menstruation is not a sickness, so it made no sense for her to take sick leave. So, our policy came into being and has been strongly endorsed by our Board.
You are not sick when you have your period, it is a completely natural health reality. Equally, you are not sick when you are sleep-deprived due to symptoms related to menopause. So why do so many women need to take sick leave while masking the real reason that they cannot perform their work duties?
Approximately 52 per cent of respondents aged 12-18 said that not having to make an excuse when feeling unwell would make their period a better experience. Having to lie about the real cause of your pain or discomfort reinforces the idea that menstruation is a negative thing rather than a fact of life.
The VWT’s menstrual policy provides the possibility of working from home; the opportunity to stay in the workplace under circumstances which encourage the comfort of the employee eg. resting in a quiet area; or the option of taking a day’s paid menstrual leave.
“We have been trialling this policy for 12 months and I can say that there has been a positive take up in the spirit in which it was intended without disruption or dislocation,” said Executive Director Mary Crooks AO:
“Experiences of menstruation and menopause can be very debilitating, yet we have been enculturated to mask its existence in the workplace, at schools and at home. This policy supports women in their ability to adequately self-care during their period and menopause, while not being penalised by having to deplete their sick leave.”
Currently, the lower house of Italy’s parliament has been discussing a draft law for paid menstrual leave introduced by four female politicians. Countries like Japan are often championed for having had a menstrual policy with leave for decades. What is not usually mentioned is that the need for leave was prompted by the belief that taking leave while menstruating prevented problems during pregnancy and childbirth, such as miscarriage and premature labour. Also, that many Japanese women do not take it for fear of reprisal, sexual harassment and lost job opportunities due to gender bias.
South Korea has had a menstrual policy with leave since 2001 yet workplace culture penalises rather than supports women. Yoon Jin-Sung, a female worker in a male-dominated industry, was interviewed by the Korean Times in 2013, “I don’t think my male colleagues understand the pain we have to go through during our period. Without such an understanding or a solid system that guarantees that right, I think most of us would rather bite the bullet by taking medicine, which I do all the time to relieve my pain. I don’t want to be perceived as receiving privileges just because I am a woman. But it’s not a privilege at all. We need an environment where we can use the leave when we need to.”
Photo Credit: Rupi Kaur
Many of the objections to menstrual workplace policies are along the lines of “it’s unfair”, “women will take advantage of the policy” and “stop singling out women as being different”. All of this reinforces ideas that the lived experiences of women are not valid; they need to prove their worth to have a seat at the table; and need to act like men to succeed in the workplace. That menstrual policies bestow privilege on women is a concept we need to contest and dispense with.
Jane Bennett, one of Australia’s leading menstrual educators, is now engaged along with Karen Pickering, in developing the analysis and accompanying narrative which will form the basis of the Trust’s final material. On the Trust’s menstrual policy, Jane’s response was: ‘This sends a clear, strong message that menstruation and menopause are normal, it is appreciative that the associated symptoms can be difficult, and that self-care at these times, as needed, is supported and valued. More widely applied, I’m confident that this will lead to happier – and at least equally productive-workplaces.’
Progressive workplaces which are prepared to embrace and practice diversity policy need to take the menstrual policy step. Menstrual policies matters. Accept the realities of your employees’ health and well-being; choose to respond positively; and enjoy the consequential workplace benefits.
Download our menstrual policy template and adopt it in your workplace
For media inquiries about our menstrual policy, please contact Mary Crooks AO, VWT Executive Director on (03) 9642 0422.
Casimira Melican is the lead policy researcher at the Victorian Women’s Trust and a regular contributor to the VWT blog. She has co-written submissions to the Victorian and Federal Governments on diverse topics such as women’s superannuation, paid parental leave and women’s leadership. On weekends, she can be found cooking feasts for the whole family and instigating unmissable d-floor action to all your pop favourites.
Grace Mountford is a Project Officer at the Victorian Women’s Trust, currently working on Club Respect, a violence prevention initiative that delivers strategic educational tools, helping sporting clubs to embed a culture of respect and harm prevention in all their practices. She has a Master of Public Policy and Management from the University of Melbourne.