Thursday, March 30, 2017

Note to Italy: Paid Menstrual Leave Will Probably Backfire, Period

Aside from March being International Women's Month, we are not all that far from it being Equal Pay Day, a time in which people [on the Left] misleadingly raise awareness for the gender pay gap (the gap, at least in an American context, is much smaller once adjusted). That is why I find it an interesting time of year for Italy to make headlines. The Italian government is looking to pass a bill that would make Italy the first country in the Western world to mandate menstrual leave.

Menstrual leave is a policy in which a woman is allowed to take either paid or unpaid leave from work to deal with menstruation-related pains. Menstrual cramps (dysmenorreah) are throbbing pains in the abdomen or lower back occurring during the menstrual cycle. Although the pain can be mild, Mayo Clinic points out that the pain can be severe enough where women have legitimate difficulty performing everyday activities because of the pain. The American Family Physician says that up to 20 percent of women deal with severe pain, which would mean that if they are right, 80 percent of periods do not result in severe pain. The Italian piece of legislation attempts to remedy this situation by allowing for women to take three days off per month. If this passes, Italy will join Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in having such a mandate.

Whether or not menstruation causes greater absenteeism is a bit mixed. A 2009 study in the American Economic Journal found that women are more likely to be absent from work because of the menstrual cycle. A 2010 study in the National Bureau of Economic Research actually found that there is no real effect on absenteeism. While there is mixed evidence, I would like to make the assumption that menstrual leave does indeed address absenteeism caused by the menstrual cycle.

Before continuing, I do want to say this: Admittedly, I am male, and do not have to go through the monthly ordeal of the menstrual cycle. I sympathize with those who go through it because it sounds like anything but fun. Even with that sympathy, I have to wonder just how effective it would be for women to take off up to three workdays a month.

Italian feminist writer Miriam Goi thinks that the bill would reinforce stereotypes about women "being more emotional on their periods." Purdue history professor Sharra Vostral points out that the fact women menstruate was used to keep women out of the workplace. There are feminists that worry that such a bill can be used to reinforce the idea that women are not strong enough to work three days out of the month, which is the last thing women need considering the workplace discrimination against women that still exists. Passing this bill after women have dealt with this bloody issue for centuries would regrettably be perceived as a sign of weakness. This quote from the Irish Times sums it up:

"The notion that women are so frail we need a whole new category of sick leave to deal with what is for most of us a routine, if irritating, monthly occurrence isn't emancipating. It's retrograde and a bit creepy. I can't help feeling it's less about liberation than about our deep-seated cultural anxieties about women and their bodily fluids. Menstrual leave isn't a means of making the workplace more accessible to women--it's yet another way of keeping us out." 

If the more normative argument does not convince you, take a look at the argument against paid menstrual leave from an economic standpoint.

While the bill solves one problem, it creates another: firms would think twice before hiring women, and it is not difficult to see why. Based on the most recently available data, all working Italians are guaranteed 20 vacation days off, as well as 11 paid days for holidays. Italy also mandates 22 weeks of paid maternal leave, which is on the higher end in the European Union (paternal leave is only for one day in Italy). There already is some controversy as to whether paid maternal leave causes women to be at a disadvantage in the workplace.

The Italian bill would add onto the advantage women would get. If the bill passed, women could have an extra 36 days off a year, which would give women a total of up to 67 days off. And if you don't think such labor regulations don't have an effect on living standards, take a look at this November 2016 study from the European Central Bank. This maternity leave would leave men with less than half of vacation time as women. This would not simply be a matter of breeding resentment (both from those who have to carry the extra workload and the men who do not get the extra time off), but an additional 36 days for each woman each year would come at a considerable cost to businesses.

Even though there are not studies out there showing the effects of menstrual leave specifically, we can still take a look on how labor laws for fringe benefits have an adverse effect. To quote a 2013 study from the Social Security Administration, "most labor economists believe that in the long run, much or all of the burden of labor costs for fringe benefits falls on workers." Italian economist Daniella Piazzalunga is worried that a menstrual law would exacerbate the wage gap in Italy. Forbes made a similar argument back in 2014 about the effects of menstrual leave on women's wages. This does not even get into enforcement issues, such as proving that a woman has not reached menopause, is not using an IUD, or proving that the pain is bad enough where a woman needs to take off.

Women in Italy already have an uphill battle. Although it is illegal, one in four pregnant women in Italy are let go as a result of becoming pregnant. Only 61 percent of Italian women work, which is below the 72 percent average for OECD countries. If you want more women in the Italian workforce, this would not be effective. Italy is dealing with anemic GDP growth and an unemployment rate that is above the European Union average.

This legislation would not just deliver a blow to the Italian economy. It would cramp women's opportunity to advance in their careers. Companies should be able to come up with gender-neutral sick policies without having to pry into a woman's personal affairs. Removing the taboo behind menstruation would also be nice, but menstrual leave is not the way to go.

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