When I first wrote this – last night, after a good half-bottle of Rioja – it was a different post. I’ve since started the Merlot, and sort of changed my mind. Or rather, I’ve simply decided which bit of the fence to sit on.
Proving once again that Bristol is the best city in the UK – and also possibly the maddest – the West Country-based firm Coexist have introduced a ‘period policy’, which will allow women to take leave if they are suffering at ‘that time of the month’.
This has been quite, er, controversial over the last couple of days. And you know me – I love nothing more than having an opinion that includes some feminism, some poor jokes and requires a lengthy explanation – so this is catnip to me. In the same way that saying “London Calling is the best Clash song” is; I just can’t resist jumping in with “no, you’re wrong, the best Clash song is actually a tie between Train in Vain and Rock the Casbah. So there.”
As someone who has suffered badly with period pain – and I mean badly; we’re talking throwing up and passing out, once memorably almost at the same time – I don’t know where I stand on this one. I once rang my mum in tears from university because I couldn’t uncurl myself from the foetal position (oh, the irony!) due to the feeling that everything from my waist to my knees was simmering in acid. And I do not call my mother willingly (sorry, Mum).
Is it necessary? I don’t think so. We have sick leave, after all – and if women feel they can’t take a day off when their uterus is holding them hostage and they’re weeping into a hot water bottle, then we need to have a slightly different conversation. One that runs along the lines of “this horrible thing happens to most of the women you know every single month, let’s grow the fuck up and let them talk about it.”
Will it hinder women in the long run if the policy becomes a commonly-adopted one (and I can’t see that happening, seeing as we are apparently so lacking in empathy that we can’t even allow people with disabilities to keep their cars now)? Probably. It depends on the employer, doesn’t it? If you work in a very male-dominated, male-run environment, anything that means women have to be treated differently is going to be met with derision. If you’re in a female-dominated, female-run workplace, it might be considered with greater care. (And if your workplace is roughly 50-50, I can’t help you. I only deal in extremes.)
In theory, it’s a nice move. It’s hard to come up with an argument against something that essentially boils down to ‘compassion and consideration for people who have to deal with something they can’t really control’. But what is life is if not an endless competition of who is the Most Outraged (and Daily Mail readers will beat us all, in the end)? Some of the arguments that people have been coming up with are pure gold, in idiocy terms. Do read on…
The best one I’ve seen is “OK, but what will the men get? Will they get time and a half when the women they work with are off and they’re doing extra work?” Erm, no. Do you get time and a half when Steve’s off with flu, or Dave’s got a stomach bug? No, exactly. Jog on. Men, you’re not missing out on anything here – you can already go about your month uninterrupted, safe in the knowledge that your body won’t turn on you for a few days every four weeks, regular and relentless as clockwork.
“Why don’t women just go to their GP and get help?” is another such plaintive refrain. As if poor, silly, fragile women can’t think of these things by themselves. They do. And if they can get a GP to take it seriously – ha! – the usual go-to treatment is the contraceptive pill. Which is just dandy if you can tolerate an additional dose of hormones, but not everyone can (I’m one of these lucky people – I’m officially Not Allowed to take the Pill, according to my GP. All my numbers came up on the physiology lottery, I can tell you). The other option is simply super-strong painkillers – which are great, but again, not for everyone. It’s easy to forget that drugs strong enough to be effective against severe pain will come with side effects. It’s also worth pointing out that it was the fourth GP I spoke to about period pain that took me seriously. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first three were men. Two of them tried the “ibuprofen and exercise” line on me and it was all I could do not to scoff derisively and walk out. Exercise?! Sorry, I’m not familiar with the “traumatised hedgehog” yoga pose*, and that’s about the only position I could be in when the pain was at full whack.
*curled up in a ball, whimpering softly, since you ask.
Then there’s the “well, this is it for women in the workplace – what with the maternity leave and everything, they’ll be screwed! No promotions for them! Give it time and they won’t even get hired!” crowd. I accept this one – though not the smug, I-always-knew-women-were-weak tone that accompanies it. It is problematic – God knows we don’t need yet another career obstacle, but we must also bear in mind that male is not the only norm; we need to stop making ‘man’ the default. Just because women make up only 17.3% of FTSE 100 board directors, 25% of MPs and 23% of reporters on national daily newspapers doesn’t mean this will always be so. The tide will turn – men have been running most of the shows for thousands of years now, and it’s time some space was made. And that means accommodating the needs of people who aren’t men.
You have to trust people to know what they can and can’t do, what they are and are not capable of, and as a society, we seem to have reservations about trusting women with their own bodies, which is getting rather tedious now.
The worst argument against it is coming from other women – “back in my day, we just gritted our teeth and got on with it,” and: “it’s natural – God, women are such wimps!” Oh, and the biscuit-taker: “I’ve never taken a day off with period pain, I just take a couple of paracetamol and crack on!”
Great! Do you know what also happened “back in the day”? People died or went mad because they did not have access to medical help for things we can now treat reasonably easily. Do you know what else is ‘natural’? The common cold, pneumonia, and cancer. You’ve never found yourself thinking you’d be better off living a uterus-free life? Well done, you’ve never experienced the kind of pain we’re talking about here. Collect a medal on your way out, your input is not required. It still amazes me that in 2016, the people who are least affected by various things – abortion, same sex marriage, pick an issue, any issue – are either vociferously opposing them, or legislating for them.
…I didn’t mean to get so cross about it. I do think we need to come up with a better term than ‘menstrual leave’, if it’s going to be A Thing. It’s not a great phrase. You can imagine a grey-haired HR manager in head-to-toe navy booming “yes, Maria’s on menstrual leave, you’ll have to talk to Sandra instead” down the phone. I know we have to be mature and grown up about it, but personally I’d be tempted to name it something gently silly. It would be so satisfying to call in sick and say “I need to take some Downton leave” (it’s a period drama), or “I’m going to need a Red Wedding Weekend” (it’s horrific), or “I’ve got the Dementors in” (you feel like you’ll never be capable of happiness again).
In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran came up with a test for deciding if something is sexist or not – you simply have to ask “are the men doing it?” It’s probably as flawed as it is well-intentioned, BUT let’s apply a similar approach here. If men were the ones that had to deal with this nonsense – the blood, the pain, the sometimes-crippling mood changes, the general feeling of ‘not quite well’ – for a few days every single month, would we have something in place that gave them the time and space to deal with it?
Hard to say, but I know which way I’d call it.