Why menstrual leave is a hot-button workplace issue

Australia is emerging as a global leader on menstrual and reproductive health leave, but the policy is hotly contested. A research team at the University of Sydney conducted a workshop on the topic recently.

The workshop comes as the Greens called on the federal government to allocate $25 million a year to make sanitary products available in all Australian public high schools.

Research Associate, Sydney Colussi, said the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to workers’ health needs including menstrual and reproductive healthcare.

Woman holds a water bottle to her stomach to ease menstrual pain.

Some feminists argue that menstrual leave policies can push gender equality backwards.

“It’s no secret that COVID-19 turned the working world upside down. Underscoring the conversations about work from home policies and physical distancing is a rising awareness of workers’ needs, such as the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers,” Ms Colussi said.

“We need to include menstrual and reproductive healthcare as part of this conversation. Girls are taught from a young age that periods are a private, sometimes shameful issue. But these old attitudes must change if our workplaces are to be productive and inclusive.”

The researchers found in a forthcoming paper that 17 countries have implemented or are considering menstrual policies, with Australian businesses leading the way.

“Despite this progress, we are still failing to address menstruation at the policy level. This affects gender equality and could undermine Australia’s obligations to respect and protect women’s human rights. These policies could help make menstruation and menopause a normal part of workplace life,” Associate Professor Elizabeth Hill from the Department of Political Economy said.

Menstrual leave can be a polarising issue for organisations and feminists alike.

Professor Marian Baird

The Victorian Women’s Trust introduced a menstrual leave policy in 2017, allowing employees to work from home or claim paid leave for menstruation or menopause. Organisations in the private sector including Future Super and Mobibodi have since followed suit and introduced similar policies.

But some feminists argue that menstrual leave policies can push gender equality backwards.

“Menstrual leave can be a polarising issue for organisations and feminists alike. Many argue such policies can exacerbate gender discrimination and reinforce harmful stereotypes that women are physically weak and less capable while menstruating,” Professor Marian Baird from the University of Sydney Business School said.

“We shouldn’t write off a policy solution such as menstrual and menopause leave but it does need to be designed very carefully and in an inclusive way. Rather than dismissing the policy, we need to have a respectful and open debate about how women’s reproductive health needs can be accommodated in the workplace.”

Associate Professor Hill said: “Our research on the history of menstrual leave in Australia shows that local innovations only started in the early 2000s, when the Sydney University Students’ Representative Council and the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union were involved in two separate industrial disputes over menstrual leave.”

Another example of Australia’s leading role in this space was the petition to remove the ‘tampon tax’. Led by Subeta Vimalarajah, University of Sydney student and Wom*n’s Officer, the petition called on then Treasurer Joe Hockey to remove GST on feminine hygiene products, which was legislated in 2018.

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