While Italy is on the verge of becoming the first European country to give female workers the right to menstrual leave (ML), British companies continue to navigate this matter in different ways: while some voluntarily offer ML to staff who need it, others rely on sick leave. The experience of other countries suggests the need for a more holistic approach.
If passed, the draft bill – which is already being discussed in the lower house of Italy’s parliament – will oblige employers to grant three days’ paid leave each month to female employees who experience painful periods. Although pioneering in Europe, the notion of granting women time off in connection with their periods is better established in Asia: Taiwan, China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia already offer such leave. Indeed, Japan has been offering ML since 1947. Legislation on statutory ML rights was also proposed, but not passed, in Russia in 2013.
Despite this acceptance elsewhere in the world, the Italian bill is not without its critics. Opponents say that introducing this type of statutory leave in a country in which females are already under-represented in the workforce will further deter employers from employing women, undermining the bill’s laudable purposes.
This is a familiar criticism of legislation that seeks to protect a specific group of workers. Questions have been raised about unhelpful divisions in the workplace, especially at a time when action is being taken to address the gender pay gap and increase the number of women in senior positions.
Nevertheless, sports giant Nike introduced ML into its code of conduct in 2007, obliging its business partners to join in by signing a memorandum of understanding. Last year, Coexist, a Bristol-based community interest firm, announced its plans to include ML as part of its employment arrangements. Its managing director explained that the group wanted to introduce a policy that recognises and allows women to take time off when needed for menstrual discomfort, without putting it under the label of illness.
If the legislation is passed in Italy, other European countries are likely to follow suit and many more employers could choose to remain ahead of that curve by introducing ML voluntarily. This need not take the form of a rigid policy; employers can adopt a holistic approach and include ML within existing flexible working policies. For example, female employees could be allowed to work from home for perhaps three days per month, or to have an automatic right to work flexible hours during those three days.
The benefits of such an approach are not just about pre-empting eventual legislation – such a policy could reduce sickness absences, increase productivity, foster loyalty and improve retention of female talent.
Sophie Applewhite is a senior solicitor in the employment, pensions and immigration team with Maclay Murray & Spens