Pacific Media Network has introduced a menstrual leave policy for employees, and it could be a game changer for how other companies – and the wider Pacific community – approach menstruation.
In the winter of 2021, Pacific Media Network’s Niu FM radio station discussed menstrual leave on air and the importance of normalising conversations around periods and menopause, topics considered taboo in many Pacific cultures.
Fast-forward to April 2022 and Pacific Media Network (PMN), a majority of whose staff identify as Pasifika, is walking the talk by introducing menstrual leave for its employees.
The change began at an E tū union meeting at PMN last year. Union delegate and radio broadcaster Sia Petelo says it was a female member who suggested talking to management about menstrual leave, following the korero that was aired on Niu FM. Before long the meeting was hearing stories about menstrual cramps, the struggle of mothers whose sick leave is used for childcare or their own menstrual pain, and male members were voicing their support for the policy.
Later, in a meeting with CEO Don Mann, Petelo pitched the idea of a menstrual and menopause leave policy. Mann declined. As he recalls the conversation, Petelo wasn’t having it, telling him the PMN was “established to uplift Pacific people, their voices, Pacific prosperity, uphold Pacific values and empower our community and here I am doing exactly that and you’re hesitating to follow through.” Mann says he looked back at Petelo and told her: “You’re 100% right.” His mind had been changed.
Mann discussed the idea with his leadership team, including female members Susana Guttenbeil and Leone Vito-Toleafoa who offered insight into the experience of menstruation and how it can affect employees’ ability to work. He contacted Kristy Chong, CEO of Australian company ModiBodi, which has implemented menstrual leave and their conversations led to Chong introducing Mann to Marian Baird, professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney, where menstrual policies are also in place. “She shared research going back decades about workplace gender issues, which has a connection to menopause and menstruation, and it opened my eyes,” he says.
While he’d gained knowledge from across the ditch, Mann also wanted to look into experiences specific to Pacific women. “I made myself familiar with the work of Lana Lopesi who wrote Bloody Woman and after educating myself a bit more, it was a no-brainer.” He went back to the union, accepted the claim for menstrual leave and began drafting up a policy, which is now in place. Mann says he saw the change as an opportunity to dismantle the fakamā or shame around menstruation and menopause, and to let employees decide what’s best for their work environment, their vā or space, and for their total wellbeing.
Petelo says she cried when she heard the news. The new policy includes 12 days of menstrual leave per year for E tū union members at PMN. There’s no need to provide a medical certificate and it’s mandatory for the office to supply sanitary products, which are now readily available in staff bathrooms. Because the policy stemmed from E tū union, the leave is currently only for the union members who advocated for it. “Our long-term goal is for the leave to be available for all,” Petelo says. Mann adds that “for any PMN employee who is not a member of E tū, that employee has the right to discuss access to menstrual leave as part of their own individual employment agreement.” Petelo says around 55% of female staff are members of E tū.
Aotearoa is getting better at acknowledging that periods are normal, says Anika Speedy, general manager of Dignity New Zealand, which works to expand access to period products in work and in schools. “Our hope is for employers to allow and be generous with sick leave entitlements as part of an employee’s right to maintain their wellbeing and hauora including with menstruation. Whatever offering helps create the culture and environment to feel supported during menstruation, to take the time you need, is what we tautoko.” Pacific Media Network isn’t the only employer that is changing its approach to “sick” leave, she says. Other examples include Xero reframing sick leave as wellbeing leave and Sharesies offering two days of “wellness leave” a year.
Days For Girls is a global organisation advocating for better access to menstrual care and education, including the distribution of reusable menstrual kits to those in need. Asked for a response to the PMN policy, Aotearoa coordinator Helen Griffin says she commends any initiative that supports worker wellbeing, be it for mental health, caring for whānau or any other reason such as normalising periods and their side effects. “There’s a strong taboo about speaking about menstruation and it’s incredibly important to open communication and discussion to educate and promote knowledge in this area,” she says.
While many women don’t experience debilitating menstrual pain, it’s important to remember that’s not the case for all, says Griffin. “Research tells us that women are often ignored or belittled when they experience the more extreme side effects. It seems that menstrual leave would allow women who need time off to do so without having to justify their leave. It would surely increase job loyalty and job satisfaction. It would also normalise what is a normal and healthy part of women’s lives,” she says.
But despite the positive move by PMN, Aotearoa still has a long way to go. In February, RNZ reported on an Auckland employee who had reached a settlement with her employer over sick leave. She had complained to the Human Rights Commission after her manager had criticised her use of sick leave for menstruation-related pain.
Given the shame and lack of understanding that still surrounds periods and menstruation, moves like PMN’s can only be a good thing, says Sia Petelo, the radio host who got the ball rolling. She’s not only happy about the positive impact on her own colleagues, she says, but on listeners who have learned about the issue – and on organisations, especially Pacific ones, who may be prompted to rethink their own policies.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.