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The Spanish government this week passed a bill that would create a nationwide menstrual leave policy for workers – meaning that if a woman receives a doctor’s note for severe menstrual pain, she would be eligible to take a state-funded PTO. The bill has yet to be approved by the country’s legislature, where it will face some opposition. But if passed, Spain would make history by becoming the first European country to offer workers this benefit.

By the looks of it, menstrual leave is about as common as a tampon ad without women dancing in white pants. Few countries offer any form of menstrual leave: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Zambia. But none offer policies as robust as Spain’s.

How the debate ended in Spain

Supporters of the policy, such as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Equality Minister Irene Montero, who introduced the law, say it would be a useful step in destigmatizing menstruation. “Periods will stop being taboo,” Montero said.

However, other lawmakers are critical of the proposal. A spokesman for far-right party Vox called it “offensive,” and a major trade body in the country said the bill could actually harm women in the workforce. Some government officials and workplace experts fear the bill would further stigmatize menstruating workers and reinforce the sexist stereotype that periods can make someone too emotional or irrational to do their job.

  • Sometimes that once-a-month debilitating combination of back pain and nausea makes you feel bad about your work, research shows. Between 50% and 90% of women experience period pain, and 33% said the pain prevents them from performing their daily activities.

A curveball with a paid vacation policy: people who are menstruating are not allowed to use it. In Japan, which has had the longest paid vacation since 1947, use of this policy has fallen sharply.

  • In 1965, about 26% of women in Japan were reported to be taking menstrual leave. In 2022, the proportion of those who said they used it “almost every time” was just 1.9%.
  • The number one reason they don’t use their allotted vacation time is to avoid an awkward conversation with their male boss or colleague.

Other option? More (or unlimited) sick PTO to use at employee’s discretion. But this type of policy is most often implemented company-to-company, whereas Spain’s sweeping menstrual leave law would likely cover low-wage workers for whom an adequate PTO would otherwise likely not be available. – MM