Inclusion of menstruating persons at the workplace often gets stuck on the question of period leaves. Advocates supporting period leaves, put forward pertinent arguments on the need for rest and low productivity. Period leaves have proven to increase retention of female employees and is often hailed as a progressive step for inclusion of non-binary folks as well. However, period leaves are contentious as it increases barriers to entry for menstruating persons in the job market. Dr. Sally King, a menstrual health researcher, also argues that period leaves, while a means to the end, can also lose sight of the larger objective of creating gender sensitivity. She goes on to show an association of period leaves and exclusion of menstruators.
Economists have also grappled with the question of declining female workforce participation in India despite the tremendous growth rates the country has been experiencing. The most recent IMF statistics show the decline from 32% in 2005 to 19% in 2021. While period leaves may help incentivise women workforce participation, there are several other (inexpensive) steps that an employer can take to create an inclusive space for menstruating persons.
Small steps go a long way...
With the threats of COVID-19 weaning off, employees are now back in office and may need a space to rest. When I joined The Asia Group, I was introduced to the “Wellness room” – A small closet-sized room with a reclining armchair, soft lighting, and a lock that reads occupied when you are inside. This room has a mini fridge stocked with water and soda, a first-aid kit, and a chest of drawers with band-aids, tissues, AND tampons and pads.
A wellness room is non-discriminatory in nature; an amenity made available to all employees – be it a headache or a menstrual cramp. For someone who suffers from dysmenorrhea i.e. extreme period pains, I would miss work on the first two days of my periods. The wellness room allows for a private corner where I plug in my electric heating pad and stretch out my aching legs. The wellness room also plays a subtle role in normalising periods. The menstrual care products occupy the same shelf as band-aids reminding folks that it does not need to be hidden or covered in gross black bags.
While we are returning to normalcy of in-person work, the pandemic taught us that productivity has several factors and being in or out of office is not one of them. Allowing for remote work or limited hours of in-person work, has proven to be an effective tool in retaining employees, regardless of gender. This could take several forms – reducing in-person work per week, allowing for one day remote work in the week, and/or unlimited remote work with regular check-ins. A hybrid working environment allows an employee to exercise agency on what supports their productivity. Menstruators could benefit deeply from limited work hours. Most menstruating persons are aware of the date when they are expecting their periods and can align their leaves and remote work hours accordingly.
Let’s talk about periods in public.
One of the most discussed drawbacks of period leaves is that it does not remove the stigmas related to periods. While most companies comply with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) guidelines and conduct gender sensitivity trainings, these are usually inadequate in addressing larger questions of inclusion. An effort should be made to create gender sensitisation among fellow workers. These modules should include appropriate behaviour towards menstruators and understanding of menstrual and sexual reproductive health. A cultural change can only be expected through sensitisation efforts.
Another way to normalize periods amongst co-workers is to acknowledge and create awareness around the International Menstrual Health Day on May 28. The World Health Organization and the UN Special Programme on Human Reproduction Programme added the day on the global agenda to advance the rights of menstruators across the world. Observing the day helps create visibility towards the challenges faced by menstruating persons in their professional life. It is pertinent to involve non-menstruators in the activity to generate awareness on their role in reducing this gap. A few ways to recognise this day can involve:
Carrying out a learning-based activity involving games/trivia to test the knowledge of colleagues on body literacy
Digital campaigns that raise awareness on the gravity of period poverty
A well-known trick in the book to retain employees is to set company culture during the on-boarding process. An element of sensitisation can be added to the HR process while hiring and on-boarding. The company can position themselves a period sensitive or period positive workspace. A simple message of this kind helps set the norm of inclusion as a company value and not an optional feature. The value of inclusion goes a long way in reducing attrition of gender minorities. Additionally, early norm setting also ensures that colleagues are not unintentionally excluding uterus owners and can nurture a culture where openness is rewarded.
Some of these small changes in the work environment could help create a conducive space for menstruators. It is important for employers to adopt the lens of intersectionality when viewing menstruators in professional life. While period leaves are looked upon as a biased advantage provided to menstruating employees, concepts like wellness rooms and sensitivity training can be an advantage for all employees instead of a select few. It can also prevent the othering of menstruating employees, a risk often attached to paid period leaves.
As the workforce in the country expands to include non-binary and trans persons, it is even more prudent for employers to introduce cultural transformations including correct use of language. Menstruators or menstruating persons are inclusive terms that refer to all those who experience periods - cis-women, non-binary folks, trans-men, and others on the gender spectrum. Special accommodations should also be made for menstruating persons with disabilities whose experiences vary drastically from able-bodied individuals!
Ananya is a Gleitsman Leadership Fellow and a Cheng fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. She is the founder of Paint it Red Foundation.