The Stigma of the Menstrual Cycle between Culture and Work /2
The social construction of gender stereotypes is perhaps the main tool of “naturalization” of many of the discriminatory practices that have affected women, and still affect them today, in civil society and the world of work, contributing to constructing and perpetuating a social order characterized by deep asymmetries of power. One of the most historicized stereotypes and taboos is that regarding women’s menstrual cycle. For centuries, superstitions and legends, and even scientific studies, have described menstruation as an invalidating phenomenon for a woman’s life, since it makes her impure and weak, thus justifying her exclusion from education, work or public life, and voting.
This is the second part of the previous blog of January 18th. In the first, we presented a brief historical excursus on the construction of the stereotype relating to the invaliding power of menstruation. In the second, we provide context for the historical discourse leading to the recent events in Italy and Spain. This division allows us to reflect on current events with greater depth, not only celebrating social progress, but also understanding the risks it entails.
For the first time in Italy, the “Nervi-Severini” Art High School of Ravenna, starting in January 2023, instituted menstrual leave for female students who request it. In particular, the school gives students who suffer from dysmenorrhea the possibility to be absent for a maximum of two days a month without the absence being calculated among those that must be considered for the validity of the school year. The decision by which the school’s board launched the initiative was published in December 2022, following actions carried out by student representatives, who after having gathered testimony from sixteen girls, argued that many suffer from menstrual cramps so strong as to interfere with the performance of their normal school activities. The school’s principal stressed that “The promotion of citizenship skills, that constitutes one of the formative goals of school, depends in part on granting the legitimate requests from students put in a condition to determine how problems can be managed through a democratic process that takes place inside collective bodies.” This is a particularly progressive high school, that listens carefully to students on issues of equal opportunity.
Taking their cue from what happened in Ravenna, the students of the Latium region demonstrated to obtain the same rights. The student protests used the example of the law on menstrual leave approved in Spain in December 2022. That law provides leave from work of three days a month, upon presenting a medical certificate that certifies the presence of painful and invalidating menstruation. The measure is part of a more complex reform on sexual and reproductive health and voluntary interruption of pregnancy. Spain has thus become the leader in Europe on the introduction of menstrual leave, that at the moment is present also in Japan, Indonesia, Zambia, China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. In Italy, a similar bill was presented in 2016, and is still under discussion today.
Regardless of the laws in different countries, there are business that grant their employees menstrual leave in any case. In the United States, Nike introduced it in 2007; the English company Coexist in 2016; and the Indian multinational food delivery company Zomato in 2020. All of this reminds us that businesses can take an active role in social progress, even in a hostile legislative context.
Rereading the news items in light of the historical excursus and its impact on the current dominant social culture, as well as observing the specific situations in which the most recent events have taken place, can help observe them with greater critical spirit. On the one hand, the evidence from the past reminds us that it took centuries to remove the stigma of the physical and emotional “vulnerability” of women, that for a long time justified their exclusion and subordination in civil society and the world of work. On the other, the situations in which recent events occurred have ingredients that cannot yet be generalized: the environment of the Ravenna High School appears sensitive and characterized by a strong dialogue with the students, and is attentive to the issue of rights and equal opportunity; the Spanish law on menstrual leave represents only one part of a broader law on the issues of reproductive and sexual health.
In the absence of these specific conditions, menstrual leave could actually open a wound that has not yet fully healed from a cultural standpoint and increase employer mistrust towards women. The meta-text of this leave, if not part of an open and inclusive cultural environment, implicitly supports the concept that women have a temporary but constant disability that prevents them from studying or working. Is that what is really needed to progress towards equal opportunity and the inclusion of differences? Thinking of the Italian cultural context, in which, for example, women still have trouble finding work due to the stigma of maternity, are we really sure that a law that underscores a condition of permanent and cyclical difficulty for some women will not have a boomerang effect for those same women? As has happened and still happens for maternity, could it not increase the reticence of businesses towards hiring and developing women’s careers?
Are we also sure that the cultural context and work environment is so open as to allow women to declare their dysmenorrhea to an employer without the fear of discrimination? Why introduce a new measure when we know that it is still difficult to apply existing ones, such as paternity leave, smart working, and equal pay?
The studies carried out in recent years by the Diversity, Inclusion & Smart Working Observatory of SDA Bocconi provide a possible response to these questions and lead us to conclude that menstrual leave, in the current Italian cultural context, unfortunately risks becoming a demagogic and mostly counterproductive measure. The prevalent interpretation of a measure intended to promote equal rights and inclusion would end up underscoring a difference that would encourage the preference for a man over a woman when employers evaluate potential workers, even when they have equal skills.
In an ideal world, this type of leave would be useful, but we always need to pay close attention to the context; in our society it would create an additional alibi for laying women off. Sick leave already exists; why not use the same instrument when we are not feeling well during our period?
 “Dysmennorhea” is the medical term used to identify the pains associated with the menstrual cycle. In some cases, the symptoms can be easily controlled by taking painkillers; for other women, instead, it is an extremely debilitating problem that can interfere with normal daily activities; see https://www.humanitas.it/malattie/dismenorrea/.
 Italian law states that students must attend at least three-quarters of the annual schedule in order to be admitted to exams; the school is given the power to identify exceptions, for grounded and documented reasons, such as certified health problems.
 Which includes the regulation for the “Gender free” register that introduces “alias careers,” a way to allow students who have undertaken a path of gender transition to substitute their birth name, assigned to them upon birth based on their biological sex, with their chosen one.
 The law, promoted by the Minister of Equality Irene Montero, also foresees initiatives on the subject of reproductive health, abortion rights, and sexual health. The same measure established, for example, the free distribution of menstrual hygiene products in schools, prisons, women’s centers, community centers, and public entities. See https://www.lastampa.it/cronaca/2022/12/17/news/congedo_mestruale_la_spagna_fa_da_apripista_in_italia_come_siamo_messi_la_tutela_delle_donne_e_in_stallo_dal_2016-12418242/; https://europa.today.it/attualita/paese-ue-approva-congedo-mestruale-spagna.html.
 The first country to introduce menstrual leave was Japan in 1947, followed by South Korea in 1953. More recently, leave was adopted in 1992 in the Indian region of Bihar, with a law that gives women the right to be absent from work for two days a week for “biological reasons.” Similar laws were then issued also in Indonesia (2003) and Taiwan (2014). In 2016, it spread in some regions of China as well: in the East, it is in fact thought that if women don’t rest during the days of their period, they will then have many difficulties during childbirth. In 2017, in Zambia, See https://www.repubblica.it/esteri/2022/05/13/news/dolori_mestruali_la_spagna_potrebbe_essere_il_primo_paese_occidentale_a_dare_il_congedo_alle_donne-349362771/.
 In 2016, four Democratic Party parliamentarians in Italy (Romina Mura, Daniela Sbrollini, Maria Iacono, and Simonetta Rubinato) submitted Bill no. 3781 in the Chamber of Deputies, to establish menstrual leave. The law would allow women to be absent for a maximum of three days during their period – without the need for sick leave or requesting vacation time, and continuing to receive 100 percent of their daily salary – by presenting a medical certificate for dysmenorrhea. The bill opens by stating that in Italy between 60 and 90 percent of women suffer during their menstrual cycle, and this causes high rates of absenteeism, from 13 to 51 percent at school, and from 5 to 15 percent in the workplace; https://documenti.camera.it/_dati/leg17/lavori/schedela/apriTelecomando_wai.asp?codice=17PDL0044140#:~:text=3-,PROPOSTA%20DI%20LEGGE,di%20tre%20giorni%20al%20mese.