Why not period leave for women? Hong Kong should consider women’s needs to keep them at work

Paul Yip says an empathetic workplace is a productive one, and there’s no reason why Hong Kong can’t take its cue from a British company’s proposed leave for menstruating women, among other family-friendly measures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 April, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 April, 2016, 10:00am

Coexist, a large community and arts centre in Bristol, employs 31 staff, only seven of whom are men. It will be the first company in Britain to allow female employees menstrual leave. According to the director, Bex Baxter, it makes sense to allow women employees to take advantage of their natural cycles rather than fight against them. She reckons that by providing time out for women during menstruation, they will do even better after the leave.

Taiwan and South Korea have laws allowing women time off when they have their period

Menstruation still seems to be a taboo for many young women, based on our Family Planning Association of Hong Kong youth sexuality study. Sometimes, they feel ashamed to admit they are in pain. The proposed period leave in the UK is an opportunity to raise public awareness of the issue and reduce the social stigma associated with it.

Menstrual leave was first tried in Japan in 1947. Countries including Taiwan and South Korea have laws allowing women time off when they have their period. I think this awareness helps both men and women become more empathetic to one another. This policy initiative can create a positive approach to menstruation that empowers women and men to support the effectiveness and well-being of the organisation.

Hong Kong is known to be an efficient society. At the same time, it has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world – 1.2 births per woman – compared with the rate of between 1.7 and 2.1 per woman in most Western countries. Yet, Hong Kong women’s workforce participation rate is very low, at 49 per cent, versus 60-80 per cent in the West.

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Women who want to pursue a career or simply improve their living conditions by earning a wage often find they need to compromise their aspiration to have a family. They either delay their marriage and/or have fewer children. Apparently family formation and career development for Hong Kong women are two competing forces, which is detrimental to their well-being. Achieving one and losing the other does not make them happy at all.

Some employers are still reluctant to make the workplace more family-friendly

Some employers are sadly still reluctant to make the workplace more family-friendly. Due to continual improvement of education opportunities for women, female undergraduates outnumber their male counterparts and more women are to be found in professional bodies today. An unsupportive working environment is sometimes the cause of human resource wastage and shortage. Our work environments need to be further improved to attract women to stay in the workforce to meet the anticipated labour shortage from 2018. The government has invested so much in education and our university graduates. Creating a more supportive environment to keep women at work is for the good of our whole society.

In Australia, most workplaces in the university sector and professional bodies have adopted flexible working arrangements without loss of productivity or compromising on standards. People can enjoy time in work and family as well.

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Hong Kong is a great champion of efficiency at work. However, if that is translating to employees working long hours with minimal payment, then the efficiency is for employers only. But our whole society is paying a huge cost to achieve that, in terms of sacrificing well-being of employees and their families. It is not something to be proud of.

Indeed, we need to work hard and smart. Squeezing ever more into employees’ working hours is not going to be sustainable. No healthy company can survive for long on this model. By paying attention to the well-being of employees, whether male or female, a win-win situation for all could be established. It is very unfortunate that some employers still have short-term vision and they are not willing to invest in people to raise productivity.

It is time that the government takes the lead to invest in our people

Hong Kong’s efficiency miracle can’t be built on the exploitation of long working hours and cheap labour cost. It is time that the government takes the lead to invest in our people and innovation, diversifying Hong Kong’s portfolio to enhance the life chances of the population.

There was a bitter fight with employers for three days of parental leave for male employees last year whereas a period of at least five days is the norm in other high-income Asian countries. The proposed period leave for women might be even harder to achieve but certainly it is worthwhile to pursue. At least half of the population should support this.

The community as a whole should be more aware of women’s needs. Making period leave available would be a small step in recognising women’s contributions and would help us develop a truly global city.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong