Menstrual, Menopause, and Maternity Leave: Why Sex-Based Policies Don’t Work for Women…

Menopause leave is back in the UK news. It’s so great that we are having public conversations about menstrual and menopausal health, but I must admit I’m getting very tired of being told that the solution is to make us deal with debilitating symptoms alone at home!

It’s almost as if we are relying on ill-informed (albeit well-intentioned) celebrities and influencers to solve a problem caused by 300+ years of capitalist gender myths and strategic societal/ medical ignorance regarding the female reproductive body…

I have already written several blogs and given talks about menstrual/ menopause leave and the numerous reasons why they are not progressive policies for female reproductive health or gender equality in the workplace. I have even published an academic book chapter based on my comprehensive evaluation of existing (problematic) menstrual leave policies enacted around the world [1].

We tend to prefer gender myths to stereotype-challenging facts. Photo: Pexels by dids

The thing is, it is super hard to argue against something that ‘sounds’ good, even if all the available evidence suggests otherwise! Humans seem to be really bad at going beyond superficial thoughts and fact-checking… And we may even prefer stories that align with, rather than challenge, our gender stereotypes [2].

The evidence base

My usual arguments (based on the available data) are that menstrual/menopause leave policies [1]:

  1. Are known to result in discrimination against female workers in the countries that have enacted them (due to backlash from colleagues/ employers against the perceived injustice of a sex-specific benefit).
  2. Reinforce sexist (and inaccurate) biological stereotypes about ‘all women’ being debilitated by their bodies (making less productive and more expensive employees than men).
  3. Blame the female/ menstruating/ menopausal body for problems associated with inadequate and inflexible working conditions.
  4. Frame menstrual/ menopausal health issues as something ‘different’ (and less worthy) than other types of conditions (that qualify for sick leave, reasonable workplace adjustments, and good quality healthcare) and encourage people to deal with debilitating symptoms alone at home.
  5. Incorrectly position debilitating menstrual/ menopausal symptoms as simply ‘bad versions’ of healthy reproductive experiences– when they are usually a sign of an underlying health issue.
  6. Are far less effective at what they hope to achieve than flexible working conditions and improved menstrual/ menopausal education (at school/ the workplace/ for doctors).

However, it seems these arguments cannot compete with the ‘good story’ that is menstrual/ menopause leave. So, I am going to discuss a comparable labour policy to illustrate my case in a new way, specifically dealing with the entirely predictable ‘backlash’ against sex-specific policies and why it is, therefore, always better to avoid them.

Maternity leave and the problem of policy backlash

It usually takes at least two people to make and care for a baby… Photo: Pexels by nappy

We now have almost 50 years of good quality research looking into the pros and cons of the most common sex-specific employment policy- maternity leave- i.e., allowing time off work to give birth and care for the essential needs of a young baby. It is now well established that (especially ‘forced’) parental leave is a more effective intervention than maternity leave [3], in terms of improving the gender pay gap, women’s hiring, promotion, and leadership opportunities, child health outcomes, fatherhood experiences, and gender equality in wider society [3].

In fact, the US (which does not have national-level maternity or parental leave policies) places higher in the economic/ workplace gender equality rankings [4] than some more gender-equitable countries, such as Norway, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK – while ranking below them overall (across economic, political, health, and educational indicators) [4]. This is not because the US prioritises gender (or racial or class) economic equality- it’s just an unintended consequence of a super-capitalist culture…

These somewhat surprising findings are almost entirely down to the avoidance of the ‘policy backlash’ associated with maternity leave – the (un/conscious) resentment of, and associated discrimination against working women due to a perceived unfair advantage (paid time off work) and/ or biological liability (the female reproductive body). Forced parental leave equalises the financial and societal burden of parenthood between the sexes and both parent’s employers. In turn, this reduces the inaccurate, sexist, and frankly, illogical positioning of parenthood as a woman’s sole responsibility and aim in life. Similarly, by not having to pay for decent maternity (or parental) leave, US employers are less likely to (albeit unfairly and illogically) resent and discriminate against all female workers.

This is the real world. The 2017 all male caucus discussing the removal of US maternity care coverage from health insurance policies. Photo: White House

Hopefully, you can see some parallels between maternity v parental leave and recent menstrual/ menopause leave policy discussions? The fact that the UK government stated that menopause leave may “create… discrimination risks towards men suffering from long term medical conditions” [5]- perfectly illustrates the way in which sex-specific policies generate an almost automatic backlash response from many people (even if their arguments are unfounded).

Remember, even though policy backlash is often illogical and unjust- doesn’t make it insignificant or easy to overcome. This type of thinking is incredibly difficult to argue against- even with a whole lot of evidence on your side! It is an entirely predictable human reaction that we need to take seriously when planning policy interventions in the real world.

Finally… Don’t believe the hype!

Given that 90% of people who menstruate do not need to take whole days off work to manage their period or perimenopausal changes and a quarter of the female workforce no longer experience these things (due to having already reached menopause), additional leave policies for only and all cis women are totally unnecessary [1]. Those who do suffer from underlying health conditions triggered or worsened each cycle or during the peri-menopause already usually qualify for sick leave and reasonable adjustments to their role- exactly the same benefits and anti-discrimination policies that apply to all employees in the UK [1].

As I have said before, a much better option would be for improved menstrual/ menopausal health literacy (at school/ work/ and for doctors) and more supportive and flexible work practices to enable all employees to take a break if needed and feel safe to disclose and work around their health and wellbeing needs [1]. We already know that there are no major gender/ sex differences in the uptake of sick leave or productivity levels of workers [1]– so again, there is no need for any ‘only and all women’ policies…

Look how the ONS describes the gender employment gap as “some women choosing to start a family and not work” as if men aren’t also parents and that the gender pay gap and lack of forced parental leave don’t influence this ‘choice’. Image: Women in the Labour Market Report 2013, ONS

Plus, contrary to recent media claims, the percentage of men and women leaving paid employment after they hit middle age (48-54) is very similar- suggesting that female biology/ the menopause is unlikely to be a major factor [see graph above] [6]. In fact, the “1 in 10 women leave their jobs due to menopausal symptoms” statistic that is currently being quoted everywhere is not to be trusted, as it is not possible to check the methodology or see the questions asked in the survey [7]. The menopause is a healthy physiological process that likely evolved to protect us from the dangers of pregnancy, childbirth, and iron deficiency anaemia- it’s not an illness and most perimenopausal workers do not need to make any major adjustments to their role [8].

I’m quite certain that the menstrual/ menopause leave debates will continue to rumble on, despite the substantial evidence base suggesting they are harmful policies. A story that aligns with pre-existing gender myths is just too good to stop repeating… That’s why we still don’t have forced shared parental leave in this country, too.

Please cite as: King, S. (2023) ‘Menstrual, Menopause, and Maternity Leave: Why Sex-Based Policies Don’t Work for Women…’ Menstrual Matters Website [ accessed on DATE]

References and notes:

[1] Check out the free summary blogs here and find the whole chapter here: King, S (2021) ) ‘Menstrual Leave: Good Intention, Poor Solution’. In J. Hassard & L. D. Torres (Eds.), Aligning Perspectives in Gender Mainstreaming, 151–176. Springer International Publishing.

[2] Nelson, J. (2014) The power of stereotyping and confirmation bias to overwhelm accurate assessment: the case of economics, gender, and risk aversion, Journal of Economic Methodology, 21:3, 211-231, DOI: 10.1080/1350178X.2014.939691

[3] If interested in this stuff, check out- Duvander, A., Eydal, G. B., Brandth, B., Gíslason, I. V., Lammi-Taskula, J., & Rostgaard, T. (2019). “Eleven: Gender equality: Parental Leave design and evaluating its effects on fathers’ participation”. In Parental Leave and Beyond. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

[4] The World Economic Forum produces an annual Gender Gap Report– it’s a great read! Based on the 2022 report, the US ranks 27th in the world overall (p. 10)  but 22nd on the economic participation & opportunity index (p. 15). In contrast, the UK ranks 22nd overall (p. 10), but only 44th in terms of economic participation & opportunity (p. 15). Norway (3rd overall, 27th on economic parity); Ireland (9th overall, 35th on economic parity); New Zealand (4th overall, 39th on economic parity). The countries with forced (shared quota-based) parental leave policies (e.g., Iceland, Finland, Sweden) do better overall and on economic parity, too.

[5] This quote is taken from a BBC report ‘Menopause leave’ trial rejected by ministers 24th January 2023.

[6] Office for National Statistics-‘Women in the Labour Market’ 2013 (the latest data report published)- graph from p. 4. 

[7] I’m surprised that the Fawcett Society supports this research methodology/ statistic- it’s one of the most problematic and unsubstantiated claims I’ve ever heard… I suspect leading questions or some sort of skewed population sample were involved. Interestingly, a previous menopause survey conducted by the same marketing company (Savanta) in 2017 found a much lower percentage of women claiming to have left their job due to menopausal symptoms (2%). Until the data and research methodology is publicly shared/ critiqued, companies are likely to position ageing female employees as less reliable and more expensive than their colleagues, making them more vulnerable to workplace discrimination. Again, improved menopausal health literacy and flexible work options within the workplace would provide a much better solution than a sex-specific leave policy, anyway.

[8] A systematic review of menopause population studies found that around 80% of people experiencing perimenopause do not require medical treatment, or find their symptoms debilitating/ seriously disruptive. Blümel , J.E. , Chedraui , P. , Baron , G. , Belzares , E. , Bencosme , A. , Calle , A. , et al . (2011) . A large multinational study of vasomotor symptom prevalence, duration, and impact on quality of life in middle-aged women. Menopause, 18 , 778 – 785

Categories: Menstrual Leave.