The Duck of Minerva

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Does Menstruation Explain the Gender Wage Gap?: A Kiwi theory

June 26, 2011

The CEO of the Employers & Manufacturers Association, an association that promotes New Zealand businesses, Alasdair Thompson sparked a heated debate last week when, during a discussion on equal pay, he publicly claimed that women’s productivity was impacted by their periods. He claimed that women “take the most sick leave” and explained “ you know, once a month they have sick problems. Not all women, but some do.” He later went on to say “Men and women are fortunately different. Women have babies. Women take leave when they have their babies.” In a subsequent interview he claimed: “Some women have immense problems with their menstruation – immense problems. You know they can pop a lot of paracetemol and drag themselves into work, but it’s hard for them.” Thompson seemed to only make matters worse when he later rationalized his comments by referencing one of his receptionists who he says told him that when some women call in sick they cite their periods as the reason.

Is it possible in 2011 that a top CEO could honestly believe that the main reason for pay disparity between men and women is menstruation? Really? This story is so frustrating that it is difficult to know where to start. Logically there are three main assumptions that Thompson is making that warrant examination: first, that women take more sick days than men; second, that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days; third, that these period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap.

The first assumption- that women do indeed take more sick days– is true, but not significant. In New Zealand men typically take 6.8 sick days a year, with women taking 8.4. While there are no clear statistics available for the US, studies in the UK also show, on average, men take 140 days off sick during their career, with women taking 189 sick days. A Finnish study also found that while women were 46 percent more likely than men to call in sick from work for a few days, there was no statistically significant difference between men and women in terms of their long-term leave from work.

The second assumption- that menstruation is a major factor in women’s sick days- is much more difficult to substantiate. The New Zealand study indicated that menstruation was not a significant factor in women’s sick days. The Finnish study noted that working conditions for women were consistently poorer for women and could be a primary factor in fatigue, and sickness rates. The UK study indicated that single mothers had the highest rate of sickness absence, indicating that family pressures could be a factor in sick days. The UK study also found that women were more apt to “try their hardest to make it to their desk” and “feel guilty” if they fell sick.

The third assumption- that period-induced sick days help explain the gender pay gap- is the weakest link in Thompson’s unfortunate logic. Decades of activism and research surrounding equal pay legislation and policies have shown that the biggest factor in the wage gap is attitudes.

Thompson’s comments reveal embedded misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding women’s ability to contribute to the global workforce. Thompson is right on one account- women are different from men. Women are (at least for now) the only sex that can carry children and give birth. Further, most women are the primary caregivers to children- regardless of their work duties. Recognizing these two differences in more rational and supportive ways should result in changes to workforce policies rather than accusations of female liability.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.