What women want: Wage parity, equal opportunity. Period | columns | Hindustan Times
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What women want: Wage parity, equal opportunity. Period

In a competitive work environment, laws with inherent gender biases create deeper unexpressed resentment and carry a high risk of penalising women.

columns Updated: Jul 15, 2017 16:39 IST
Sanchita Sharma
A sufragette rally near Boston. This discussion has gone on far too long.
A sufragette rally near Boston. This discussion has gone on far too long.

Women don’t need menstrual leave, they need equal opportunities and wage parity.

A Mumbai media company made news last week for offering women a day off on the ‘first day of their period’ in the misplaced belief that it would make workplaces more women-friendly.

Ridiculous demands such as these reinforce biases about women being biologically weak, less competent, more high-strung and emotional during their menstrual period.

They add to gender polarisation, which for generations has been used to hold women back and exclude them from education, voting, owning property and working in certain professions, such as the armed forces.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want people to work while they’re suffering. I’m for granting employees paid leave when they are in pain, irrespective of whether they have a uterus or a prostate.

In a country where women launch Mars Orbiters wearing Kanjivaram silks and flowers in their hair and work long hours at construction sites in late stages of pregnancy, petitioning the government to give all women the right to apply for leave “on the day when the discomfort is unmanageable, no questions asked” is presumptuous.

Some women, not all, have period cramps (dysmenorrhea), and while those who do have my sympathy, as does anyone in pain — I’ve dealt with period pain, migraines, and have a kid, so I know pain — there’s always sick leave.

When you seek parity, you don’t ask for subsidy.

In a competitive work environment, laws with inherent gender biases create deeper unexpressed resentment and carry a high risk of penalising women, both in terms of salary and career advancement. Since the new Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act doubled maternity leave for women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two children and 12 weeks for subsequent children from April 1, some companies that didn’t do so before have already started treating women as a liability.

Single women who adopt are also entitled to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave under the new law, which is prompting HR personnel to ask women employees intrusive questions about when they want to start a family, something they would never consider asking men.

Japan began granting leave to women who “suffered heavily” with period pains in 1947, and more recently, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and some provinces in China have introduced similar laws. Brazil and Italy, too, are considering three days of paid leave to menstruating women with painful cramps.

The law has few takers in Japan, where it’s the employer’s prerogative to decide whether the leave is paid or unpaid. Even in workplaces where leave is paid, women in pain choose to take sick leave rather than avail of special treatment.

Shrinking jobs

As it is, women’s participation in the workforce in India has shrunk, despite women being more educated now, and having fewer children, shows a World Bank report.

About 19.6 million women dropped out of the workforce between 2005 and 2012, with the fall being higher in rural areas. Only 27% of women in India were part of the labour force in 2013, compared to 79.9% in Nepal, 63.9% in China, 24.6% in Pakistan and 23.3% in the Arab world, the report stated.

The World Bank report recommends creating policies that promote the acceptability of women employment and investing in economic sectors more attractive to women.

If anything, ‘menstruation leave’ will make women less employable. As women move from low-wage unskilled jobs to productive employment and better wages in the services and manufacturing sectors, they need employers to regard them as productive workers who won’t wilt and swoon every month.

Menstruation is a natural, biological process, like eating and sleeping, and marking the period as something that makes women “the other” is absurd. In a society where women are excluded from religious, social and community participation during their period because many people still consider menstruation ‘impure’, women must speak openly about bodies, biological needs and sexuality. Young girls must be told that menstruation is part of their lives and who they are. It’s not something that makes them weak or inept.

Yes, it’s sometimes painful, but pain is what tells us we’re alive.