For anyone who has suffered with headaches, cramps and other menstruation-related symptoms, the Zambian custom of “Mother’s Day” has a certain obvious appeal. Originally observed informally, the entitlement was eventually coded into the country’s labour law. All women have a legal right to a day off from work each month, to be taken when Aunt Flo is visiting. Despite the name, the provision applies equally to women who don’t have children.
The longer you think about it, though, the clearer it seems that there are good reasons to question the wisdom of treating a normal bodily function like menstruation as an impairment. Historically, pseudoscientific claims about female biology have often been used as an excuse to limit women’s freedom and opportunities. Generally speaking, the idea that we’re less competent when we’re on our period is one most feminists are keen to discourage. Though about 10% of women do experience unusually painful periods that interfere with their everyday life, most us have no problem carrying on as normal – perhaps popping a couple of paracetamol to deal with any aches and pains.
Ideally, employers should allow workers flexibility to work around all kinds of chronic pain and disability, though this is easier in some workplaces than others. It’s clearly well-intentioned, but creating a specific leave entitlement for women seems to create more problems than it solves – particularly when the majority don’t really need it. When employment legislation treats people differently based on their gender, it creates a motive for employers to hire people from the group with fewer legal rights. One of the strongest arguments for equalising maternity and paternity leave is that it disincentives such discrimination. Taking a day off once a month doesn’t necessarily make women less productive over all, but the perception is what matters.
Last year, Bristol-based company Coexist provoked a fierce backlash when it introduced a similar “period leave” entitlement for its predominately female workforce. Some of the criticism came from feminists who were concerned about the implications of assuming menstruation hinders women’s ability to work, but the angriest, most vocal opponents were men who seemed to sincerely believe that the policy amounted to discrimination against their gender. It’s easy to roll your eyes at self-professed “men’s rights activists” making absurd claims about misandry and “feminism gone too far”, but the idea that gender-specific leave entitlements mean women are getting away with slacking is difficult to combat.
The grim irony is, if anyone’s getting special treatment it’s actually men. The gender pay gap in Zambia is significant, with women earning an average of 40% less for similar work. Even if they’re not able to catch up work missed during Mother’s Day at other times, an extra day off each month doesn’t bring them much closer to achieving equal pay – for that they’d have to take two days holiday every single week.
In the UK the gender pay gap is smaller but still significant. Women in their 20s earn an average of 5% less than men of the same age, so a day off each month would be about right to equal things out. The difference gets bigger for older age groups, because women are more likely to be primary caregivers and need to put their family ahead of career advancement. Sometimes, this fact is used to argue that the gender pay gap isn’t really much of a problem – as it’s partly caused by conscious lifestyle choices. The assumption is that women are naturally inclined towards prioritising parenting over wage increases, and that they’re happy to pick up the slack at home and free up male partners to concentrate on paid work. Given the pervasiveness of gender norms it seems strange to just presume this is the case. Research has found that even in heterosexual relationships where both partners work full-time, women do a disproportionate amount of housework. Are we expected to believe that the female gender is also naturally inclined towards doing laundry, vacuuming and scrubbing toilets?
Really, any assessment of “fairness” that concentrates exclusively on paid work is incredibly limited. Anyone outraged at the thought of women occasionally needing time off to deal with painful periods would be better off focusing on the extent to which men’s workplace success is often enabled by the routine unpaid labour of their female partners. Only in a world where domestic and caregiving work is routinely devalued – to the point it’s assumed to be the natural function of the gender disproportionately responsible for performing it – could anyone possibly claim that women are getting an easier ride. Instead I suggest at least one monthly “pay gap day”. It wouldn’t help solve the problem to claim it, but until these assumptions are challenged and the resulting inequalities brought to an end, women are nonetheless entitled to it.
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