Italian women who suffer from painful periods might be close to getting a monthly “menstrual leave”—up to three paid days off, upon presenting a doctor’s diagnosis of dysmenorrhea (extremely painful periods, which can include vomiting or headache), for women whose period pain stop them from conducting their regular daily activity.
The bill (pdf in Italian), presented by four female members of parliament last April, is being examined by the labor commission and could be approved shortly.
The news has been met with international enthusiasm: Italy—a country of notorious sexism—taking up a progressive policy meant to benefit women! And that is, indeed, reason to celebrate.
But behind the good intentions, there is the reality of Italian working women: They are unemployed at even higher rates than Italian men, and their labor already is more expensive.
Italian women have the lowest workforce participation rate among high-income economies. Less than 50% are employed. Of those, only about a third are employed full time. For these women, Italy has friendly policies in place. A five-month maternity leave, paid at 80% of full salary, is mandatory. Fathers do not have access to the same benefit, but once the mother has finished her five-month leave, both parents can take up to six months at a 30% salary. Women can often take paid sick days if their young children are ill, and can work a reduced work schedule if they are breastfeeding.
Though maternity leave is paid by the government, the extra benefits women enjoy contribute to the perception of them as more expensive employees, in a country where the cost of labor is already pretty high. Non-wage costs, such as taxes and other benefits (pdf), make up 27.9% of the cost of an Italian worker. The high investments required to hire Italians is often blamed for low salaries as well as reluctance to hire full-time personnel.
There are similar dynamics at work outside of Italy, too. As Lisa Maatz, who leads government relationships and advocacy at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), told Quartz in September, female-friendly work benefits also have a cost for women, in that they are more likely to exacerbate stereotypes about women being less dedicated to their careers. That is one of the reasons to support leave for both parents, and not just for mothers.
Menstrual leave risks working similarly. If the legislation passes, a female employee would automatically come with the potential added cost of three paid days off—something that could further reduce her chances of being hired. The better bet might be to expand sick leave for everyone, so that one gender’s commitment to work doesn’t appear different—not even on paper.