period leave
Credits: Feminism in India

Recently Zomato, one of the biggest Indian food delivery start-ups, announced its paid period leave policy. This policy grants 10 additional paid leaves a year to all female and transgender employees to normalize leaves for the sole purpose of resting during their menstruation cycle.

Naturally so, this move received praise on one hand while stirring up many debates on the other. Advocates of this policy called it a bold and a long-overdue progressive move to get rid of the stigma associated with menstruation. It accounts for the pressure that severe medical conditions related to menstruation, such as pelvic and lower back pain, endometriosis, PCOS and the like, put on women. A 2012 study shows that painful periods interfere with 20% of women’s daily activities. Thus, it is important to accept the biological differences between genders and de-stigmatize menstruation.

Often, this debate leads to one pressing question: Should any government, central or state, mandate that all companies, in all sectors, mandate a paid menstruation leave policy?

In 2017, The Menstruation Benefits Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Member of Parliament, Shri Ninong Ering, “to provide certain facilities to female employees during menstruation at the workplace and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

Supporters of the bill are of the view that such a mandate by the central government will further the cause of tackling the taboo against periods. In a poll that I conducted within a small group of people, not a single person was skeptical of such government intervention. Much like the majority of people who have taken to social media to share their views about this, the respondents of my poll also believed that a special “period leave” should be given. Supporters of such a government policy see this as a step towards shifting mindset and attitudes of people, especially those in the corporate world, towards menstruation.

However, the unintended costs and consequences of imposing a paid national menstrual leave policy are far worse for the condition of women in workplaces. The government’s role should be limited to promoting an enabling environment for women through other ways while leaving it up to individual firms to decide if they wish to implement a policy of paid period leaves.

As Hayek points out in his piece on The Use of Knowledge in Society, the economic problem of society is a “problem of utilization of knowledge not given to anyone in its totality”. He points out that an individual’s active cooperation and planning is preferred over the central government’s planning because the individual has unique knowledge over others. When governments impose such policies on firms, possessing only a tiny fraction of knowledge about the costs each firm would incur, it will do more harm than good.

What are the unintended consequences in this case?

Firstly, there will be an increase in hiring bias from companies that cannot afford the costs of providing additional leaves to their employees. It is essential to take into account that the majority of India’s population (82.6%) works in the unorganized informal sector, according to NSS 68th unit-level data on Employment and Unemployment, 2011-12. This sector already bears the brunt of huge costs. The “woke” decision taken by Zomato, the largest Indian food delivery start-up, cannot be taken by small enterprises and MSMEs which do not have the same earnings. Thus, it would not be surprising to see such small firms practice discrimination against hiring women, preferring to hire more men. This would be alarming, considering that the number of women in the workforce is already pitiable. This is contrary to what the advocates of a paid period leave policy want!

Another consequence of the limited knowledge that the government has is that they do not have the knowledge to determine what women want in different companies. Implementing a government-mandated uniform policy for all firms means that an assumption is being made that all women need such leaves and more importantly, that they are comfortable discussing their menstrual cycles with their employers. Such an assumption is detrimental. It is a possibility, especially given the conservative society that shapes our mindset, that some women are simply not comfortable sharing such information. There might be women who prefer keeping their cycles a private matter, simply because they have the right to do so. Such women would prefer a more flexible leave policy over special ‘period’ labelled leaves. Therefore, instead of the government deciding for everybody, women should be able to decide for themselves.

Having elaborated upon these points, I would like to re-emphasize that period leaves are not problematic per se but a government-imposed policy on period leaves is not the way to go about it.  All enterprises should have the freedom to decide for themselves if they can bear the costs of such a policy. Those who decide to implement such a policy should conduct surveys of their employees to get a better understanding of individual preferences.

There are other ways through which the government can target ending the stigma around menstruation and providing a safer workplace environment. A few examples include having government policies that centre around building strong institutions to protect the rights of women, building an effective incentive structure to encourage firms to take such policy decisions and talk about the sensitivity of the issue themselves.

I would like to end with a slightly tweaked but more relevant version of what Hayek mentioned in The Use of Knowledge in Society: Special knowledge of time and place can be left to the woman on the spot.

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