Understanding the rules is everyone’s business, especially your boss’s business.
Alison Mau is a senior reporter at Thingand weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times.
OPINION: In a week when daily Covid-19 cases topped 12,000 and war broke out in Eastern Europe, a little article about menstrual discrimination in a Kiwi workplace might have escaped your notice. Understandable – pandemic and war are not trivial things. But neither is the health (and dignity) of about half the population.
In a way, it’s a tricky story to tell – for legal reasons, there can be no names attached, and very few details either. What we know, goes like this:
In 2020, a customer services office worker, Sarah*, took a sick day off due to a period-related illness. We don’t know what the exact symptoms were that led to Sarah’s sick day, but menstrual symptoms can include intense and painful cramps, migraines, body aches, fever, back pain – all of which will sound familiar to anyone, male or female, who has had the “flu”. Symptoms for those with endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, or a list of other conditions may be more severe.
Being able to discreetly access sanitary items makes life much easier, say pupils at a school in Hastings. They were part of a KidsCan trial that provided educational kits, as well as vintage products. (First published in 2020)
* Woman criticized by director for taking sick leave for menstrual pain settles complaint
* More than 100 Department of Education psychologists on strike due to staffing ‘crisis’
* Once parental leave was controversial, now menstrual leave policies are sparking debate
* Menopause: The taboo of work that makes women suffer in silence
Sarah claims she was criticized by her manager for taking the day off sick. Understanding her rights under Aotearoa New Zealand’s anti-discrimination laws, she filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission (HRC). At that time, when a complaint has been filed, the HRC will help facilitate mediation between the parties if both agree (mediation is voluntary). If this is not taken up for any reason, or does not result in a resolution.
As OHRP attorney Nicole Browne told me, there are pretty strict rules for this; OHRP has a responsibility to put public money to good use, which means that only important cases succeed.
Browne described Sarah’s case as “a really clear case of gender discrimination“.
“We’re unlikely to take a losing case unless there’s really strong public interest.”
So why was Sarah’s case so important? Let’s deal with the big picture first.
Periods are a common experience, but one that is rarely talked about. As one blogger put it in 2020: “Periods are a bodily function, just like being hungry or thirsty. When you are hungry, you eat. When you are thirsty, you drink. When you have your period, you are ashamed.
The shame that society places on menstruation applies to almost everything that comes out of a woman’s body – sweat, leaking breast milk, etc. – but menstrual blood tops the list. I’d like to say that I openly and confidently walked up to a colleague and asked him in a Ordinary voice (instead of a furtive whisper) if they have a spare pad, but that would be a lie.
This is an absurd taboo, based on the belief – believed to have been first mentioned in writing in the Latin Encyclopedia in AD 73 – that bleeding (but only this type of bleeding) is dirty and unsanitary. Which is not the case. But consider how incredibly sticky this myth has been. Sticky to the point that it’s only in very recent history that menstrual poverty and sick leave options have been brought up publicly. There are fathers, brothers, sons and boyfriends who will still feel too uncomfortable buying tampons and sanitary napkins for the women in their lives, as if a bundle wrapped and wrapped on a supermarket shelf was, in itself, somehow dirty.
Not their fault. Blame it on the patriarchal society. But absurd.
We are beginning to address this stigma and its effects. Since the middle of last year, schools have been able to access free period products for their pupils through the Ministry of Education. The ministry’s website notes that as of June 2021, 1,619 schools and kura have joined the program, “meaning that nearly 90% of estimated students who have periods are in schools that have opted in.”
Sector workers I have spoken to say the program is working well and will keep students in school who might otherwise miss classes because there is no money for towels or pads.
Many working women want their organizations to follow this example, and some women-led workplaces do, but not all of us can work for women-led organisations.
Which leads to situations like that of Alisha Coleman, in 2017. Coleman, a 911 call center employee in the United States, sued her employer under US civil rights law after being fired for leaking menstrual blood at work.
Coleman, who was postmenopausal and experiencing unexpected heavy periods, settled with her employer after the American Civil Liberties Union appealed a court ruling that she had failed to prove sex discrimination under of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
It’s impossible to read Coleman’s case without imagining the distress she must have felt at the time. But Coleman nailed it in his statement after the case was settled.
“I hope my speaking out will encourage other women who believe they have experienced discrimination in any form to come forward.”
And so, back to Sarah, whose settlement with her former employer is important for the same reason.
Women at work may not be getting a massive reprimand, but a series of microaggressions.” But that tells people like Sarah, “your symptoms don’t deserve sick leave. It’s ingrained sexism.”
The idea of periodic leave (as opposed to “normal” sick leave) continues to be divisive. But organizations that have embraced it, in Australia and elsewhere, have described it as a “win-win” situation.
Workers feel more supported and productive and, most importantly, they don’t abuse ‘privilege’. The 13 female workers at the Victorian Women’s Trust, for example, have taken just eight days of periodic leave between them in the three years since the scheme was introduced to the trust in 2016. The women know when their symptoms are going to work is a bad idea, and they should be trusted to make that call.
For people who menstruate (and I include those who were born female but no longer identify as such), Sarah’s case is important because it calls for putting women down for things they don’t. cannot biologically control.
And that raises the flag for others in his situation, who may not know there is a way to fight back.
*This is not his real name.