Last Saturday (August 8), Zomato announced that all women and transgender employees would get 10 “period leaves” in a year. While this is a welcome move in many ways, there are also questions about the expectations being set by Zomato for the rest of the market.
Menstruation is a big taboo in India, and we definitely need to talk about it. But, are separate menstrual leaves the right way to do this? A report by Slate argues that companies should set up a gender-neutral sick leave policy that accounts for enough days-off for menstruating employees, instead of separately labelling it as “period leave” which could cause unnecessary prying into women’s lives.
Zomato CEO Deepinder Goyal also acknowledged the possibility of harassment and said, “In case women face any unnecessary harassment or distasteful comments from men or women about the fact that they applied for a period leave they can report it to company’s prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) team.”
In terms of creating an inclusive and gender-sensitive workplace, dedicated menstrual leaves are a progressive move, but how will the large-scale application of this policy impact the status of women in the workforce and gender pay gap?
The Side-Effects Of Period Leaves?
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 has ranked Indian 112 out of 153 countries, on the global gender gap index. Can a separate period leave policy further increase this gap and even invoke human resource professionals to ask questions about the menstrual cycle in the interviews? Would companies and recruiters think twice about offering jobs to women if such leave were made mandatory across the industry?
In March 2020, a Local Circles survey found that 49% surveyed startups and SMEs (8,500) hired fewer or no women employees in the last 12 months, due to the “financial strain” of extending 26 weeks paid maternity leaves. Similarly, separate period leaves could become the reason for startups’ preferring to hire men over women.
On the other hand, SHEROES CEO Sairee Chahal said that stigmatising period leave is a misguided step and stems from the fact that since the industrial revolution, workplaces have been designed for male employees. “It’s time we redesigned them to accommodate all profiles of people, so we get the best talent to work,” she added.
Up to 70% of the workforce at SHEROES are women and they are eligible to take one day of period leave per month aside from existing leave quotas.
There are other examples of startups treating such period-related leaves on a case-by-case basis without issuing a blanket policy. But in other countries, companies don’t have such an option. For instance, In Japan, where menstrual leaves have been a legal right since 1947, women are reported to have a fear of “social stigma” leading them to request regular sick leaves instead of menstrual leaves. As they fear menstrual leaves will attract negative attention from male coworkers.
Further, there are examples of Indonesian companies who have reportedly asked women to “drop their pants and prove that they are menstruating” to claim their two-days of menstruation leave as mandated by the country’s law. Eventually, causing many women to forgo their legal right.
The Question Of Pain And Who Gets To Decide
“These [Period] leaves should only be availed if you are really unable to attend to work. Do not abuse these leaves or use them as a crutch to take time out for other pending tasks ” said Zomato’s Goyal in an internal email.
But, who decides whether someone’s pain is bearable or not? Can this policy guarantee that Zomato employees won’t be second-guessed on their period leave requests?
SHEROES Chahal noted that often women end up feigning “stomach aches” because workplaces are not considered safe enough for full disclosure. “We see many such conversations on SHEROES, and there’s a need to generate much awareness around these to facilitate a change in mindsets, from employers to employees,” she added.
It’s no secret that women have been taking time off during their menstrual cycles. Whether we make it official or not, women are going to take these personal days off, the question is should they need to share ‘why’ they are taking these leaves.
As Gloria Steinem once wrote in her essay, If Men Could Menstruate, “Whatever a superior group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever an inferior group has will be used to justify its plight. Black men were given poorly paid jobs because they were said to be stronger than white men, while all women were relegated to poorly paid jobs because they were said to be weaker.”
There is no clear answer, of course. But the point is to talk and discuss and find a solution. After Zomato’s announcement, many argued that startup HR and employee policies need to address these issues in a more head-on fashion. Last year, for example, a slew of startups began offering medical benefits under the family cover plan for LGBTQ+ employees and their partners as permissible under the law. Is it time, other more evolved policies come into the picture to help India’s technology talent make the best out of their workplaces?