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Working Women, Special Provision and the Debate on Equality

There has been considerable coverage in the media recently about the possibility of offering women in employment paid leave from work during their menstrual period. This has generated a broad range of responses relating to long-standing discussions about ‘equality’ and ‘difference’: is women’s equality best achieved by treating them the same as men or by making provisions that recognise their differences in terms of physiological constitution and biological functions?

If the UK introduces such an initiative, it would not be the first country in the contemporary world to do so. Many countries in Asia already make the provision and Russia debated introducing a law in 2013. The policy also has a significant historical precedent. A whole chapter of my book Women Workers in the Soviet Interwar Economy: From ‘Protection’ to ‘Equality’ (Macmillan, 1999), based on extensive research conducted for my PhD, is devoted to ‘Provision for “Menstrual Leave”’.

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In the 1920s, scientific researchers and labour hygiene specialists in the Soviet Union conducted extensive investigations into the impact of menstruation on women’s capacity to work in manual and industrial jobs requiring a significant degree of physical labour. Their recommendations led to two decrees being issued that targeted specific categories of women workers:

Decree ‘On the release from work during menstruation of machinists and iron press workers working on cutting machines without mechanised gears in the garment industry’, 11 January 1922

Decree ‘On the working conditions of women tractor and lorry drivers’, 9 May 1931

These decrees arose from research that suggested, amongst other things, that inadequate seating at machines and on tractors resulted in congestion and tension in the abdomen that was exacerbated during menstruation. In practice, the decrees did not provide for regular absence from work. Women seeking to benefit from the provision had to provide a doctor’s note, similar to the usual requirements for sick leave.

The official research into the impact of menstruation on women’s capacity to work and the application of the decrees in practice raised a number of issues on both sides of the argument. I offer only a summary of the contemporary research findings and observer commentary here:

For the provision:
• employers have a responsibility to protect the health of their workers and unhealthy, poor and inadequate working environments can have a detrimental impact on women’s reproductive health
• women’s labour productivity and output would rise as a result
• it is essential to protect the professionalism of certain categories of workers: the debates here centred on performance artists and female theatrical employees engaged in highly physical and intensely emotional work
• heavy physical labour and strenuous exercise can lead to disruptions of the menstrual cycle
• women’s physical and intellectual capacities are reduced during menstruation; women lose muscular strength and powers of concentration
• women’s biological constitution and reproductive functions require specific recognition in law

Against the provision:
• employers are less likely to appoint women if they are guaranteed paid time off work during menstruation
• (often from male workers, who viewed the employment of women as competition) women should not be employed in jobs for which they lack the physical strength and mental capacity
• if necessary, women could be transferred to different tasks involving easier work during menstruation
• the provision would be open to uneven application and abuse
• women cannot expect to be considered equal with men if they are given special treatment in the law

It is worth noting also that the various research projects often revealed that the vast majority of women reported no regular problems or abnormalities with menstruation, and that men commonly reported higher levels of sickness than their female colleagues. Many of the problems experienced by women in the workplace could be mitigated by the introduction of improvements to their physical working conditions (not sitting down or standing up in the same position for long periods of time) or by the simple introduction of very short breaks that would allow women to walk around and get some exercise.

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Debates in the UK, on the TV and in the press, are unlikely to reach a consensus on this issue. What do you think?

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