Part of working towards true gender equality, whatever that looks like, is creating policies to help dismantle institutional practices that give men an advantage over women. This can be a controversial and contentious process, but is necessary in eliminating subconscious, institutionalized sexism. The challenge, however, is that in working towards gender equality, society cannot just simply say that women get exactly the same policies as men: Women and men are inherently different biologically, and always will be. This may be stating the obvious, but it means that in some cases, different policies are required for different genders. This is the fine line between equality and paternalism.
Historically, gendered policies often meant paternalism. Women couldn’t vote, own property, or hold certain jobs, to name a few. Today, these lines are being drawn in new policy arenas, such as healthcare. In light of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recent recommendation that all women not on birth control should not consume alcohol, and a UK company’s recent decision to pioneer a “period policy,” it is apparent that certain solutions venture too far into the field of a woman’s personal discretion.
While perhaps well-intentioned, the CDC’s recommendation stirred resentment about paternalistic undertones for implying that women couldn’t make such decisions for themselves. If the recommendations had been framed differently, such as by outlining risks in detail so that women would be able to make informed decisions for themselves, there might not have been such backlash. But when a gendered policy is framed in a way that leaves a woman’s personal discretion out of the picture, it feels much more like paternalism than a friendly PSA.
A “period policy,” however, opens up a whole new set of problems. Bex Baxter, director of a Bristol-based company called Coexist, along with Alexandra Pope, a women’s leadership coach, is exploring ways to implement a policy to destigmatize menstruation and allow women to take time off or work more flexibly while menstruating. Baxter herself takes a day and a half off every month, and is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “there is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive—actually it is about synchronising work with the natural cycles of the body.” She states she is much more productive in the days following her period. While extreme menstrual pain is a real issue that can be debilitating for some women, some gynecologists argue that the focus should instead be on actually treating this chronic pain.
Like the CDC’s recommendations, Baxter’s ideas are no doubt well-intentioned; however, they have too much potential to feed into notions of female incompetencey. At worst, if introduced in more companies, they might lead to women being denied important tasks or time-consuming promotions, or being resented for receiving ‘special treatment.’ A period policy would exacerbate the challenges women already face in managing pregnancy and maternity leave with their careers.
As women, we want to achieve equal opportunities for success without receiving “special treatment;” however, we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of warranting different healthcare policies under certain circumstances. The problem is that the very policies that people such as Pope promote also further the divide between genders. In attempting to make society more accepting of biological differences between males and females, these policies feed into unsubstantiated notions that women are weaker than their male counterparts, or too emotional and incompetent for certain jobs. It’s hard to imagine that the US Republicans would feel any more comfortable with the idea of Hillary Clinton in office if she could take a day off every month to attune her duties to the power of her cycle, regardless of the state of affairs worldwide. It’s not hard to think of a number of other jobs that would also find such a policy worrisome.
To mitigate gender inequality in the workplace, employers and legislators could explore ways to balance maternal leave with paternal leave. Giving women time off every month too closely resembles sheltering women from things they were supposedly incapable of. As such, the risk of a ‘period policy’ still being perceived this way is too great. While it may be hard to walk the line between equal opportunity and paternalism, it is important to allow for personal discretion in individual matters. Employers and legislators should instead focus on improving healthcare for women suffering from chronic menstrual pain, or increasing support for birth control and abortions if they are concerned about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Improved education and funding for women’s health would cater to biological differences without limiting a woman’s opportunities or personal discretion in the workplace or in society.