On August 8, Zomato introduced a policy allowing female and transgender employees to avail up to ten days of period leaves annually. Though Zomato isn’t the first to introduce such a policy in India, the move was enthusiastically welcomed by many even as several detractors denounced it as a step back when it comes to gender equality.
First, a clarification. Gender equality between men and women does not mean that women must be treated as men. This appears to be a wholly troublesome misconception because it implies that we can achieve gender equality when we treat a woman as if she were just like a man. By doing this, we’re violently erasing women’s lived experiences as women. We’re refusing to acknowledge that the female experience of the world is very different from the male.
To quote from Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women,
“Women are not scaled-down men.”
What gender equality really means is that men and women must be treated as equals. That they must have access to the same resources, privileges and rights. The point of gender equality is not to conflate male and female experiences as one, but to dismantle the universality of the male experience which deems women as “atypical”.
Do period leaves ‘ghettoise’ women?
Senior journalist Barkha Dutt also took to Twitter to state that the policy promotes “biological determinism and ghettoises women”. She recounted how she had reported the Kargil War while on her periods, and without sanitary pads.
Sorry Zomato, as woke as your decision on #PeriodLeave is, this is exactly what ghettoizes women and strengthens biological determinism. We cannot want to join the infantry, report war, fly fighter jets, go into space, want no exceptionalism and want period leave. PLEASE.
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) August 11, 2020
Her tweets reminded me of my childhood when I wished I would grow up to be like her. For many girls of my generation, she was an inspiration because for the longest time as she was the only female face in a sea of men. During those years, she might have had to repeatedly prove her competence as a journalist by constantly reminding everyone that she’s just as good as a man. Luckily, the world has progressed since then.
Also read: How Boys and Men Can Be Good ‘Period’ Allies
The very concept of the modern workplace was built to fit a man’s life. For example, most organisations’ standard working hours don’t take into consideration the unpaid care work that all women do. To put this into perspective: a 2018 ILO report showed that the average Indian woman spends 297 minutes on unpaid care work daily, while men spend 31 minutes. Introducing policies that redesign work-cultures to fit women’s needs, thus, ensure that they can participate to the best of their abilities.
Many think that creating a separate set of leaves specifically for menstruation is discriminatory. But differentiating period leaves from sick leaves can help break the belief that menstruation is an illness. It is simply a part of life for many women, but one that gets in the way of everyday activities for some.
Acknowledging that women have periods and that for some it is a time of extreme discomfort and pain does not imply that women are weak. Perhaps the reason it seems difficult for many to understand how painful periods can be is because we don’t talk about it enough. The sanitary napkin ads we have grown up seeing didn’t. The attractive women in white trousers, while jumping and leaping, never told us how nearly 25 million women in India suffer from endometriosis, a debilitating condition that causes such painful periods that it could make you pass out.
One way to counter menstrual taboos is to create spaces that allow women to talk about menstruation freely without the burden of shame. Women should be able to prioritise their menstrual health without the fear of losing out on opportunities in the workplace. Period leaves are a way forward in that direction.
Biases against women
Several people believe that period leaves exacerbate the hiring bias already faced by women. Hiring biases are a result of the misogynistic belief that women are not a good fit for certain professional roles. This can’t be solved by forcing women to be “more like men”. You cannot fix misogyny with more misogyny.
The only way to fix it is to introduce anti-bias policies. A research paper published in Harvard Business Review showed that sexist biases deprive women of promotions, despite them having identical qualifications as their male counterparts.
The gender gap in the workplace has nothing to do with women demanding exceptional treatment, and everything to do with the way they are treated. “Gender inequality is due to bias, not difference in behaviour,” the authors of the study wrote.
Also read: Period Pain: My Thoughts on Pill Shaming
Gloria Steinem, in her essay ‘If Men Could Menstruate’, said,
“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’…Logic has nothing to do with oppression.”
There’s also an interesting paradox here. Unless the shame and stigma associated with menstruation are demolished, many women will, in fact, not come forward to utilise these leaves out of fear of being branded as “unprofessional” and “lazy”.
In 1947, Japan was the first country in the world to grant women the right to menstrual leave. However, evidence suggests that Japanese women rarely use it. In a Guardian report , several women said they were afraid that taking period leaves would antagonise male colleagues, and would be interpreted as a sign of weakness. They also expressed fear that drawing male colleagues’ attention to their menstrual cycles would increase risks of sexual harassment. The menstruating employees of Zomato, too, might never use their leaves, let alone exploit them, due to these very reasons.
As it turns out, period leaves are merely a part of the solution towards normalising menstruation. Perhaps after Zomato, one can expect many other corporations to embrace this policy. But all of that will be empty tokenism at best, unless they can also ensure an environment in which women feel safe and confident enough to utilise these resources.
Sanjukta Bose is currently pursuing a Masters degree in English, and, yet, is terrible at writing bios.