Italy debates paid ‘menstrual leave’ but experts warn it could increase gender bias at work

The proposed law would allow women to take up to three paid days off per month, providing they have a doctor's diagnosis of dysmenorrhea – described as painful period cramps, ranging from moderate to severe, and other symptoms including nausea and diarrhea. File Photo/Getty Images

Italian women who experience debilitating symptoms while on their period may soon be allowed up to three days of paid leave, should a bill introduced by Democratic lawmakers move forward.

The proposed law would allow women to take up to three paid days off per month, providing they have a doctor’s diagnosis of dysmenorrhea – described as painful period cramps, ranging from moderate to severe, and other symptoms including nausea and diarrhea.

The so-called “menstrual leave” bill was presented to parliament by four female politicians in April 2016, but is now being reviewed by the Italian labour commission, which may soon approve it.

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Though menstrual leave may be appealing to those who struggle with painful period symptoms, experts warn it could set women back in their careers.

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“When it comes to women in senior leadership roles, one of the biggest choke holds is unconscious gender bias,” said women’s leadership coach Eleanor Beaton.

“Monthly menstrual leave is really dangerous because it furthers unconscious gender bias.”

Beaton said this kind bias can be seen in workplaces where women are exempt from big projects that may require overtime due to the fact they have young children at home, for example.

Some might argue women already face this kind of bias because of the fact they can conceive children. A 2014 U.K. study, which surveyed 500 managers, found that one-third of managers would rather employ a man in his 20s or 30s over a woman, for fear they would take maternity leave.

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Forty per cent of managers admitted to being wary of hiring women “of childbearing age.”

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Italian women are already underrepresented in the workforce. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), only 61 per cent of Italian women work, which is well below the European average of 72 per cent. In contrast, 82 per cent of Canadian women are active in the workforce, according to 2014 numbers from Statistics Canada.

However, the numbers begin to slide when you look at higher-up positions.

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Canadian women accounted for 35 per cent of all managers and just 32 per cent of senior managers in 2016, according to a report by non-profit organization Catalyst. Further up, women only hold 42 of the 525 “executive level” positions among Canada’s 100 largest publicly-traded corporations.

“It’s a slippery slope in the sense that there is already something called paid ‘sick leave,’ if you aren’t feeling well for any reason, you can take a sick day,” said Beaton, who added, in her experience, she has never heard of a woman who would want a menstrual leave policy to be adopted here in Canada.

Though Italy would be the first Western country to enact a menstrual leave policy, similar laws already exist in Asian countries such as Taiwan, which offers women three days of menstrual leave a year. According to the Atlantic, Japan has offered a menstrual leave option since the end of World War II, when more women entered the workforce.

A Russian lawmaker also once proposed a bill that would give women two days off a month thanks to their cycle. However the bill’s wording – which included a line that read, “The pain for the fair sex is often so intense that it is necessary to call an ambulance” – failed to take off thanks to outrage from Russian feminist groups.

Similarly, when U.K.-based company Coexist enacted its own menstrual leave policy, many called the policy sexist.

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READ MORE: Should women be entitled to time off work during their periods?

Dr. Ashley Waddington, gynecologist and assistant professor at Queen’s University, said as a woman in the workforce she would worry a menstrual leave policy would be looked down on by male counterparts, and paint women as less capable.

“Even if women [didn’t] use it, knowing that there is access to it, I think, it would be a setback,” she said, noting she would almost expect women to face discrimination should they use the option.

However, as a gynecologist, Waddington acknowledged that many women experience pain and discomfort during their menstrual cycle and said government resources may be better spent looking into accessible healthcare for those suffering.

“I would hope that women who are in so much distress over their menstrual cycles that they need to miss work, would have access to speak to a primary care provider, or a specialist, to treat their symptoms rather than suffering,” she said.



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