Period Leave: Gender Blindness Is Never the Same as Gender Equality

The argument of gender bias in hiring completely discounts the supply side, where pain and difficulty with periods discourages women from many jobs.

Zomato’s recent move to provide up to ten days of leave a year for its women and transgender employees while they are on their periods has created a stir. Even though the ten-day period leave does not even amount to one day a month, when periods generally occur for about four days every month, for all twelve months of the year, the move is still seen to be controversial in some quarters.

Barkha Dutt’s somewhat unexpected tweet on August 11, critical of Zomato’s move was met with many strong disagreements and some equally strong agreements.

The views expressed in support of the move argued that some women’s experiences with periods can be very painful, and the move accounts for variations in period pain experiences.

Further, some questioned the comparisons made between women’s work behaviour (including leave from work behaviour) and their male counterparts. They asked why should women’s work behaviour be judged according to that of male behaviour, especially when they are biologically different.

Also read: A Reminder: Periods Don’t Stop During a Pandemic

Relatedly, some have implicitly or explicitly emphasised equity rather than equality. Another article has argued in support of the move, stating that women are socialised into negating and suppressing period pain, and Zomato’s move is an opportunity for us to finally take women’s bodies, and their (dis)comfort at the workplace, seriously.

While there is merit in all of these perspectives, I would like to add to the discussion the dimension of public infrastructure provisioning, particularly a dearth of public toilets.

Accessible and clean public toilets are few and far between in India, adding another aspect to the handling of periods. This is especially relevant to women in jobs where the “workplace” is “on the road” and doesn’t quite exist as a singular specified space that comes with its amenities like that of a toilet.

While toilets have rapidly been constructed, under various government schemes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, even in Delhi, a majority of them remain “unusable” or “dirty”, according to the government’s own assessment.

The dearth of clean, accessible and safe public toilets affects all women on their periods in jobs “on the road”, independent of the pain levels. Women’s period leave, arising from such a dearth, is then akin to forced leave, and a result of the failure of public infrastructure provisioning, the cost of which women have disproportionately been bearing.

Also read: #PeriodTalk: High Time We Challenge the Secrecy Around Menstruation

The importance of clean and usable toilets, especially during periods, is obvious, and is also documented. A 2018 NDTV report stated that nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually in India owing to inadequate menstrual hygiene facilities, like toilets.

One criticism of Zomato’s move is that by providing for leave for women, women workers are being made less attractive to hire as compared to their male counterparts, and as such the move actually disadvantages women by impeding their employment.

However, this argument completely discounts the “supply-side”, where period pain and difficulty in handling periods in the absence of clean and accessible toilets can be factors that discourage women from entering such jobs.

The low and dropping female labour force participation rates in India underscore the need to retain women in the workforce.

With growing urbanisation, logistics services, such as food delivery, offer an important potential area of employment for women. Taking measures which strengthen the retention of women in (logistics) jobs, such as Zomato has, is important, not for the women alone, but also for the economy, and through its positive spillover effects, for those around them (such as better nutritional outcomes of their children; lower drop-out rates from schools of brothers; and marriage at a later age of younger sisters).

Also read: The Sexual Autonomy of India’s Muslim Women Is a Political Prisoner at Best

At the end, Barkha Dutt is exceptional, in several (admirable) ways, but do we want to create such conditions that women need to be exceptional to be able to do a job? I for one cannot but welcome Zomato’s move enough, if for nothing else, then to prompt a discussion on periods and the many issues intersecting with it period pain, access and awareness about menstrual hygiene, menstrual taboos, dearth of related public infrastructure seldom openly had in the mainstream in India.

Gender blindness is never the same as gender equality and this move prompts us to draw the distinction.

Garima Sahai is at the University of Cambridge where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on gender and labour in India. She has previously worked on gender and labour in India at the World Bank, and during her MPhil at the University of Oxford.