It’s ‘that time of the month’ where we push for period-positive workplaces

Is Pakistan ready to prioritise workplace equity or will it continue to uphold outdated taboos?
Published June 24, 2024

We often import concepts into our social construct and culture, which can either be a hit or a miss depending on what forms the basis of the import — a profound societal need or simply falling bait to wokeness and/or the bandwagon effect.

A recent import into Pakistan, and one that I invite you to evaluate, is menstrual leaves. Unsurprisingly, Pakistani women seem to be polarised on the issue. And no, you don’t have to identify as a feminist to support or negate the idea — you simply need to be someone who lives through the reality of it every month.

Women make up hardly a quarter of the workforce in this country, and if we’re truly a smart nation (yes, we’re looking at you, Mr Prime Minister), we must empower them to join the workforce and rise to leadership roles, both in and out of the boardroom.

Redefine ‘red days’

From monthly menstrual cycles to menopause and neonatal care after childbirth, women’s reproductive health is a central pillar of their quality of life, impacting every aspect of their daily routines, especially at the workplace. Yet, conversations about menstruation remain cloaked in euphemisms, as society often stigmatises these natural processes with connotations of weakness and embarrassment.

The world has had a lot of catching up to do. It wasn’t until 1985 that the word “period” was first used in an advertisement, and only in 2017 did menstrual blood get represented by a red liquid instead of blue.

Menstruation isn’t a disease; it is one of the most distinct attributes of female physiology. However, conditions linked to menstruating women like endometriosis, PCOS, hyperplasia, fibroids, cysts and polyps can make the monthly cycle extremely painful and disruptive to sundry day-to-day tasks.

Corporate workplaces, government offices, and state-owned enterprises need to be mindful of the culture surrounding female reproductive health. Many silent sufferers show up at work regardless of a painful and intense menstrual cycle and then ever so effortlessly maintain a facade of efficiency and productivity throughout the day.

It is this toxic expectation of ‘keeping it together’ that must be censured at the workplace and a policy shift as well as initiatives to create awareness by the government must be launched. It is time to disrupt the silence and shame surrounding periods.

Progress, regress and the global debate

Statutory period leave can trace its origin to Russia and the Bolshevik regime where women in factories were offered reprieve during their periods with a two to three-day leave. However, Russia has not maintained its historical practice and no statutory period leave is currently offered.

In February 2023, Spain became the first European country to legislate paid menstrual leave for all female workers, allowing women to request three paid days off per month. Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Zambia and Taiwan have offered statutory menstrual leave for many years.

In addition to menstruation, many women also undergo menopause which is a transformative time and one that mandates an official menopause leave. To quote a few examples globally, Microsoft, NBA and Abercrombie & Fitch offer menopause benefits. To add to the mix, miscarriage leave is also part of company policies in some countries.

However, if we take a peek towards our cricketing nemesis neighbour, the matter regarding a statutory period leave reached the Indian Supreme Court in the form of a public interest litigation that was dismissed on the grounds of being a policy issue better suited to the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

But even more interesting were the observations by the Indian apex court which hinted towards the global argument adopted against statutory menstrual leave being a possible ‘disincentive’ while hiring women. The observations appear to be one of the main arguments that opposers of period leave throw their weight behind — that allowing women some extra days off per month would discourage employers from hiring them and put them at a disadvantage.

It is therefore crucial to distinguish between statutory period leave and general acceptance of menstrual leave in the workplace. We must first arrive at unanimously accepting and recognising the biological reality — only then will the impact flow.

From whispered conversations to open dialogue

In Pakistan, we’re at a stage where we need to normalise conversations around menstruation before we begin to advocate for a statutory period leave. But in the meantime, the interregnum corporate and government workplaces should include some form of menstrual leave in their policies.

How does one introduce the concept of a menstrual leave albeit non-statutory in a country where periods are spoken about in whispered tones?

Currently, PepsiCo Pakistan offers two paid leaves every month and Shan Foods offers one-day work-from-home — both being coalition members of the Male Champions of Change Pakistan.

The dilemma that seems to be polarising women on a legislated period leave is the purported ancillary label it may attach — further deepening gender discrimination at the workplace.

Employers must tread carefully between the delicate balance of ensuring inclusivity and workplace equity. Male employees might feel at a disadvantage and may oppose the idea of a designated menstrual leave. Similarly, menstrual leave may also be misused to simply take days off from work or where employers may weaponise it to highlight the weaknesses of female employees.

Given these very valid and realistic reservations, it is important to ensure that employers get innovative and come up with workable models that do not compromise output at work but also provide adequate support to women.

A hybrid leave with work-from-home options, a two-day wellness leave or transferable leaves should be accompanied with conditions that ensure authenticity in claims is maintained. Ensuring transparency in the process of claiming the said leave will in turn strengthen the confidence of all those who have apprehensions regarding it.

Article 34 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that steps must be taken to ensure the full participation of women in national life and this fundamental right can be exercised and realised only when the biological reality of women is accepted. Recognising female reproductive rights is non-negotiable and lies at the core of the issue. If Pakistan wants to encourage more women in leadership roles and the workforce, it must strive for workplace equity and flexibility.

If this country has any ambitions of achieving SDG 3.7 (Sustainable Development Goals) indicator by 2030 — aimed at women’s reproductive health and includes ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services — it must launch initiatives and campaigns centred around raising awareness of female reproductive health.

The issue runs deeper here as conversations surrounding menstruation are either limited, uncomfortable or avoided altogether. Owing to this cultural constraint, many women will shy away from claiming their leave because many of the times when they intend on doing so, they may have to report to a line manager/senior who is not necessarily a woman.

Navigating through the conundrum

The answer simply lies in creating awareness, debunking, and unpacking stigmas around menstruatution. These concerted efforts will have to come from both the government and the private sector and they can’t be half-baked or mere photo ops. Company policies aimed at an additional ‘wellness leave’ that is not a sick leave must be introduced to foster inclusivity, diversity and flexibility at the workplace.

We must envision a Pakistan where every woman feels supported, and where her health needs are recognised and respected. Imagine the boost in morale, productivity, and innovation when women can work without compromising their well-being. By confronting these taboos head-on, we pave the way for a prosperous society — one where we no longer have to see women pretend to fast in the month of Ramazan or suffer through a painful period with a smile.

The question isn’t whether we can afford to implement menstrual leave; it’s whether we can afford not to.