Push for paid menstrual leave in Australia
Deb* (25) is smart, sassy and ambitious - qualities that have fast-tracked her success in the male-dominated world of mining. But she carries a secret that Deb believes could jeopardise her career.
Like one in 10 Australian women, Deb suffers from endometriosis. It's a disorder that sees the tissue that normally lines the uterus, grow outside the uterus, potentially on the ovaries, fallopian tubes or the intestines - and it is extremely painful.
On a scale of one to 10 (where 10 is unbearable pain), Deb says, "On a normal day I sit at a six." When her period is approaching, Deb says the pain ramps up to "an 8 or worse".
As a guide to how debilitating the condition can be, endometriosis is classified into one of four stages (1-minimal, 2-mild, 3-moderate, and 4-severe). Deb says, "I'm currently diagnosed at '2-mild'. So there are definitely people worse off than me."
Deb's condition is especially challenging in her workplace. "Endometriosis 100% affects my work," she says. "It's mentally and physically exhausting trying to push through and get your work done when you are in so much pain."
Despite this, Deb never mentions her condition to co-workers. "In a male-dominated industry there's a stigma to appearing weak, and you don't want the big bosses finding out how much pain you're in as you'll never go up the career ladder."
Menstrual issues aren't on the radar
Beyond endometriosis, it's estimated as many as 92% Australian women experience period pain (dysmenorrhea) at some stage. In a move that's putting a new twist on the workplace gender diversity debate, five trade unions have embarked on a national campaign to push for paid menstrual and menopausal leave.
Australian Workers' Union (AWU) Queensland State Secretary, Stacey Schinnerl, says leave entitlements need to be modernised to reflect the health experiences of women. She believes 10 days of annual sick leave each year aren't enough to recognise the health concerns women face - especially as men receive the same entitlements but experience none of the menstruation and reproductive-related health hurdles.
Lana Goodman-Tomsett of the Transport Workers' Union says many women are forced to hide period pain from their employers out of "fear of bosses thinking they will be sick every month". She adds, "The issue is particularly acute in blue collar jobs, where women know menstrual issues aren't even on the radar of their employer."
That's certainly the case for Veronica* (40) who works in a trades-based industry. For years she has experienced very heavy periods (menorrhagia) accompanied by severe headaches. Veronica explains, "During my period I wear extra-long pads - two at a time, and change often. But I still experience leakages."
Even though Veronica works on-site with male colleagues, she has an administrative role, so she only receives one uniform each year from her employer, while the men receive four. This has led to situations for Veronica that resemble Victorian-era hardship rather than a modern Australian workplace.
Veronica explains, "When my pads leak at work, I scrub my uniform pants in the ladies toilets, and wear a jumper around my waist until the pants are dry."
On the days when her period is too heavy to go to work, Veronica takes annual leave.
She explains, "There's a lot of pressure from the company not to claim sick leave. If you take more than two sick days in three months, you lose your annual bonus." While this incentive system clearly disadvantages women experiencing menstrual pain, Veronica says there is "no way" she would discuss the matter with company management out of fear of losing her job.
Removing the stigma of menstruation
Nicole Gorton, Director of Robert Half Australia, believes menstrual leave, while not common in Australia, "will be welcomed - especially by women who experience chronic reproductive pain".
She notes, "Menstrual leave is another example of the efforts companies are making to improve the overall health and wellbeing of their staff - an increasingly popular focus area for companies in today's market."
Menstrual leave is already in place in a number of countries including Spain, where women can take up to five days leave each month to deal with period pain. Other countries with provisions for menstrual leave include Japan, China, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan.
Here in Australia, employers offering menstrual leave can be harder to find than a tampon dispenser in a male locker room. Notable innovators include Future Super, which allows women to take up to six paid days of menstrual and menopause leave each year, separate from sick leave. Modibodi offers an additional 10 days paid leave annually for menstruation, menopause discomfort or in the event of a miscarriage.
Even if menstrual leave becomes mandated, Gorton says it needs to be handled in such a way that no one is treated unfairly, particularly when it comes to employment or promotion decisions. She says it's about fostering awareness of these measures, de-stigmatising stereotypical perceptions, and addressing potential concerns about gender-specific benefits.
It's the potential stigma of menstrual leave that sees Deb Carlton hold mixed views. "Being in such a male-dominated industry, I could see a major backlash," she explains. "The men would complain it's not fair women can take time off 'just for periods'. It also concerns me that women could be pushed down the workplace ladder for using menstrual leave."
She adds, "If there was a way for women to access an extra 10-12 days of sick leave without it being given a separate name, I'd be all for it. It's certainly better than nothing if it becomes an industry standard across all working environments."
A means of achieving workplace gender diversity
Time will tell if menstrual leave gains traction in Australia. As Nicole Gorton points out, "Women's health benefits, including extended parental leave and fertility benefits, are slowly but surely being introduced in more workplaces."
Some employers may argue that menstrual leave is another cost for businesses to wear. However, we've seen the introduction of paid parental leave, paid family and domestic violence leave (effective February 1, 2023), and late last year the Fair Work Act was altered to prevent discrimination against breastfeeding. None of this has fueled corporate collapses.
Moreover, with Australia's unemployment rate sitting at a 50-year low, companies are struggling to attract talent. Robert Half research shows seven in 10 Australian employers expect to feel the financial pinch of the skills shortage in 2023.
Against this backdrop, Gorton believes women's health benefits "can act as a key differentiator for businesses trying to attract a diverse workforce in a tight labour market." And if we all come to accept periods as a perfectly normal bodily function, it can make paid menstrual leave a bloody good idea for women - and employers.
*Names changed to protect privacy
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