Should women get paid menstruation leave?

And do we need a doctor's note?

Published October 11, 2006 10:15PM (EDT)

According to today's Korea Times, 1,400 women working in financial fields in South Korea have filed lawsuits against their employers demanding that they get paid for the days they take off for menstruation. These workers are joining the ranks of 3,700 more women at 10 other financial institutions, according to the Korea Times, who submitted a similar suit last month.

I must admit to not being well-versed in the technicalities of "menstruation leave" (hell, we Americans consider ourselves lucky when we get paid time off for giving birth), but some quick research indicates that prior to a 2004 revision of the country's labor law, women were entitled to one paid day of "menstruation leave" per month. Now they're apparently still entitled to time off, but won't necessarily be paid for it.

Unless, of course, they work for Citibank Korea, a unit of the American company. Citibank Korea decided last month to start paying women for menstruation leave -- a move that has resulted in the current slew of lawsuits filed against the country's less womb-attuned employers.

Not that America would ever consider paying women for their monthly uterine shedding, but let's take a moment here to think about whether this idea is actually good or bad for feminism. My immediate reaction is that to give female workers an automatic 12 paid days off for menstruation is as unfair as asserting that men should get paid more because they'll never have to leave the office to give birth.

Don't get me wrong -- I sympathize with women whose menstrual cycles are such that they actually do have to miss work because of their periods -- but I worry that the idea of demanding extra paid days off hurts the fight to have men and women treated as workforce equals. Perhaps the solution is to give a few more days off to men and women alike, and let people decide on their own how to use them.

Especially since this preliminary analysis doesn't even get into the weird aspects of regulation that might ensue -- women lying about menopause so as not to lose vacation days, bosses demanding proof that women are actually menstruating -- or the fact that not every woman has a monthlong cycle.

The whole idea reminds me of Gloria Steinem's classic essay, "If Men Could Menstruate," in which she asserts that "to prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea," and, in one of my favorite passages, writes that "generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ('men-struation') as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ('You have to give blood to take blood'), occupy high political office ('Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?'), be priests, ministers, God Himself ('He gave this blood for our sins'), or rabbis ('Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean')."

There are already enough divisions between the sexes -- do we really need to demand another?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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