Menstrual leave debate: premise and a few numbers

The one interesting thing about taboos is that in effect they are universal. There are the social taboos and for people who have very few of those, often there are ideological taboos. Discussions on menstruation is, and have been, a social taboo. In India, this is linked to the ideas of purity and in ways remain more intense. A biological phenomena which is as natural as the word can defined to be, has historically been used as an excuse to exclude women from education, religious centers and even work places. The ‘Hindu culture’, or at least the dominant upper caste dogmas in this regard have been particularly vehement in restricting woman from participating in the public sphere citing menstrual  impurity.  The orthodoxy prevalent in other religions  and cultural groups too make similar restrictions though citing different reasons. In such a society, one might imagine that breaking the menstrual taboo is the radical thing. Perhaps not according to some women who endorses the idea of menstrual leave, as two Indian companies have introduced them.   Now there are debates raging on in the mainstream as well as social media. My short answer to the question is no, and  here I am opining about this idea as a man, very likely to be accused of mansplaining. At the very least this identity factor will not bode well with a certain section of left wing or liberal feminist ideologues unless I start with the mandatory confession on privileges. This is the perfect example for an ideological taboo — an onlooker whose experiences are different should have no right to comment, even if the ideas (s)he present are relevant, logical or simply indisputable.

There is no way to break out of this new left and liberal clap trap, though I do believe that supporters of first and second wave feminism (though not always the third wave) still has enough maturity and patience to tolerate and consider opinions on such issues which  incidentally might be coming from men too. The good news is that are quite a lot of women professionals, including those who consider to be feminists, completely opposed the move for same or similar reasons that I have in mind. This has not got into a gender war kind of situation so far, as there are as many articulate women on both sides of the argument. Now, I do not want to focus on the question whether menstrual leave is necessary,  as that is not something a person of another biological sex can address. The tragedy of today’s discourse culture is that even women who have argued this to  be unnecessary from a biological point of view have been accused of being ableists without engaging with the thread of their arguments. I want to look at the logical premise of this demand and its potential economic consequences.

Logical premise of the argument for menstrual leave

Here is how I understand the question.

Fact 1: A certain section of the work force undergoes severe to manageable discomfort on a periodic basis, which is part of a natural process.

Fact 2: Because of fact 1, their general productivity is some times affected, in addition to the work related stress.

Argument A: It is in the interest of employers to give paid or otherwise leave to those people affected for better and sustainable productivity.

Argument B: It is in the interest of society (and therefore to be enforced by the state) to grant paid leave to them during the period to remain anti-discriminatory since the ones who do not suffer are privileged and should not have a say in this.

There could be other formulations of argument B, but the crux remains the same.

In my opinion, one could make a case for argument A, provided it is left voluntary for the employee as well as the organization.  Any firm that wants to give a welcome signal to its employees, and is confident to meet the ends despite loss of a few (wo)man hours would naturally go for it. No law prevents a company from doing so. Therefore, there is nothing to debate about the argument as such.

Argument B is highly problematic. I can imagine people already beginning to point out the principle behind affirmative actions. In my view, this cannot be justified with the same principle. Consider caste reservation. The argument in favour of caste based reservation is that structural inequalities and social discrimination hinters the access to employment opportunity and education. The blame is on social prejudices and to a certain extend, its history. Reservation is a provision to set a level play until such prejudices vanish. In fact, the very key argument that many Dalit activists make is that it is not because we are less able, but larger society has not given us equal opportunity to compete at the same level. Nobody but nature can be blamed in this case, if at all. A good section of women argue that periods do not significantly affect their ability to work. In their view such moves will be considered as doles and concessions out of pity, which will only perpetuate more discrimination. I completely agree with them on that part, especially in the Indian context. This cannot be called positive discrimination since it does not address the taboos or social conditions which have restricted women’s access to employment. On the other hand, this cannot be compared with reservations for the differently abled people, as those provisions are made only in desk jobs or places where their disabilities do not hurt functionality. The present debate is about an across the broad law applicable to 47.15% of the population (sex ratio of 943) or more precisely 34.67% of the current work force (2014 estimate) and all future employees.

Economic impact

Consider the scenario in which a law demanding companies to grant menstrual leave is in effect. How would it work?

My prediction is that it would only benefit a very small percentage of urban and already empowered women in office jobs and will do much more harm to women at large. For one thing, it is not practical to demand firms that are involved in emergency services to adhere to this rule. A female surgeon, lawyer, site engineer  or even a nurse won’t be able to take advantage of it. If they do, this will automatically lead to significant reduction in recruitment of women. And at least in such cases, you cannot blame the employer as these jobs demand skilled people who should be present at crucial moments. Women involved in physically demanding jobs again will not be able to take advantage for the same reason, unless they are willing to work for a lower pay. Regular clerical jobs, certain kinds of sales jobs, back office jobs in media or advertisements, service sectors like call centers, teaching and software companies might be able to cope, if they want to. But even there, competition can create a dynamics in which an upper ceiling to the number of women to be recruited will come up and/or a reduction in pay or perks. It is estimated that only 13.4% of working women have regular salaried jobs. Out of this, the jobs which can cope with the rule in the best case scenario will be not be more than half. The one day paid leave will thus get reflected as a reduction by  equal or more amount of money in net Indian female workforce’s income. One might call this heartless or very inconsiderate. This happens not because of patriarchy but human self interest. I’m sure that even women bosses who have stake in their companies will take a decision to reduce or not increase the percentage of women employees for market reasons.

What are the numbers?

Let us consider a job which pays Rs. 25,000/- per month. Assuming 25 working days, in monetary terms this translates to a demand to raise salary by Rs. 1000/- or 4%. Busy firms will have to recruit more people above the current optimal number. This new recruitments will be proportional to the number of female employees. The actual cost could even be more than the 4% increase in salary per female employee. Now, in a competitive market businesses cannot run unless this is strictly reflected by an increase in productivity. And not all jobs can contribute equally towards improving the bottom line. So they will be forced to optimize. This could happen through an unofficial cut in net pay or through recruiting less women.

In my experience, one factor that many ideologues who argue that politics should always triumph economics (there are ethical reasons why some modes of economizing should not be encouraged) is their aversion or disability to understand numbers. Having a good quantitative insight about the situation at hand is not heartlessness. I want to point out an interesting, albeit a simplistic,  figure comparison to establish why such a rule can make smaller firms with significant women employee presence nonviable. Those who have taken a first course on probability might remember the birthday problem.

In probability theory, the birthday problem or birthday paradox concerns the probability that, in a set of randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday.

If you have a legally guaranteed menstrual leave, in a firm with n female employees, what is the probability that two people will be on leave on the same day in a month availing the provision? This is not silly, as some people might imagine. Two guaranteed absentees few days a month, in a consistent manner can really create a big difference.

Let A be the event that two female employees out of n total number of them, take menstrual leave on the same day. P(A) is the probability that event A happens. Here again P(A) = 1 – P(A‘).   Assuming 30 days a month, we find that for  n = 7, the probability is more than half (53.08%). If n = 16, the probability is more than 99% (99.29). I shall consider the n = 7 case.

Let me try to put this in a plainer language. This means for a firm with 7 female employees — assuming that all does similar jobs, have similar abilities and that the natural cycles of potential employees are uniformly distributed — the chance that two women take leave on the same day in a month is more than 50%. This is given by probability theory and I did not make up this number. India’s mean female job participation ratio is approximately one third. Therefore 7 female employees doing similar job means a firm with around 28 employees in that horizontal would represents an average Indian firm. Obviously we are talking about a small firm here. Unless they consistently make a good enough profit with less hectic work load, they too will be highly constrained. This configuration implies it has 53.08% chance that on one particular day every month the strength will be 26 (instead of 28). Then there is 29.63% chance for the another 2 people  to be absent on some other day,  and 9.7% chance for yet another pair.  Apart from these chances, there are also a few 27 employee strength working days per month.

Now, let us consider a more progressive firm with equal gender participation and competence. We can assume the total number of people in this firm to be 28 (female : 14, male : 14).  With 14 women employees, the probability of two people being absent on the same day is 97.39%. In addition there is a 92.2% chance that on another day, other 2 women might be absent availing this provision, 81.54% chance that another 2 people are absent on  some other day, and 64.03% chance that this repeats once again on a different day. Further this probability series for pairs continues as 41.36%, 18.8% and 3.3% . Apart from these cases, there shall be days when office will work with 27 people.  Let me present to you a rough estimate of what these probabilities mean.

Sex ratio
No of two absentee working days/year
No of one absentee working days/year
Firm 1




Firm 2




Please remember that all these are apart from the regular leaves or sick leaves that people avail. There is no reason to believe that just because you have a paid leave per month , you won’t fall sick for some other reason. The competence of a firm which has to run 48 out of 300 working days (16%) with 26 employees  by default should  be much lower than one which runs 11 out of 300 working days (3.67%) under the same condition. If you were an employer, would you choose the second or might be inclined to reduce the number of women employees to the few who are indispensable? I bet even a woman entrepreneur will consider these figures seriously given that they might be up against firms with higher percentage of male employees.

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