[KoTEX Issue No.4] Menstrual, Maternity, and Menopause Leave: The Work-Life Balance of Women in South Korea and Worldwide
- Menstrual Leave: Menstrual leave is a form of time off from work that is granted to women who are experiencing painful or uncomfortable menstrual symptoms.
- Maternity Leave: Maternity leave is a leave of absence from work granted to a mother before and after the birth of her child.
- Menopause Leave: Menopause leave is paid time off from work for those experiencing psychological or physical symptoms associated with menopause.
March 14, 2023 - Nearly every country in the world is accustomed to maternity leave, but what about the relatively new concept of menstrual and menopause leave? Menstrual leave is only permitted in a small number of nations, including Zambia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Spain became the first country in Europe to approve paid menstruation leave in February of this year, and Ireland—more specifically, the Bank of Ireland—made history last year by implementing a paid menopause policy. Despite such advances, there is an ongoing debate over how to implement legislation that considers women's physiological needs.
In South Korea (hereafter Korea), where women have been allowed to take one day off per month for menstruation since 1953, women are under pressure not to take these days off, especially in male-dominated workplaces. There are uncertainties over what the law actually states—largely as a result of its complexity—and whether the allotted day is considered paid or unpaid. As a result, Korean women are also reluctant to have children because doing so would require extended absences and gaps in their careers. With one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and a significant number of modern women employed in a wide range of industries, women's work-life balance is quickly growing to be an urgent issue in Korea. Furthermore, it is critical to understand that women's leave policies in Korea present deep cultural challenges, particularly in light of changing perspectives on women’s physiological conditions and motherhood.
Maternity leave has become undoubtedly evident as to why "leave" is necessary, but this is not the case for menstrual or menopause. In contrast to maternity leave, fewer nations consider other physiological parameters like menstruation or symptoms of menopause. Menstrual and menopausal leaves are still viewed with some skepticism due to women either feeling severe symptoms or, conversely, no symptoms at all. Despite several studies showing that women may feel excruciating pain or other serious symptoms, for some, it is still debatable whether women should be excused from work on menstrual or menopausal leave. As a result, before a person can request leave, medical certification is occasionally requested. Moreover, while in some situations it might be treated as paid leave, like a typical sick day, in others it will be unpaid. Menstrual, maternity, and menopausal leaves for women are handled differently depending on the regulations and policies of each country.
While many nations now have paid maternity leave regulations in effect, menstruation and menopausal leave are still not universally acknowledged. A Washington Post opinion column suggested that menstrual leave is "stupid" because it is "paternalistic and silly", confirming that women's lives are biologically predetermined. Additionally, the ambiguity and tensions surrounding women's leave stem from the potential that all women experience this differently, and some women may not experience any symptoms at all. At the same time, however, there are many who experience the difficulties of chronic headaches, nausea, sweating, diarrhea, and trembling, which is not ideal when productivity is required. Dysmenorrhea, or painful periods, affects women of all ages and can be caused by a variety of reproductive disorders. While some women believe it is their right to take menstruation or menopause leave, others believe such benefits make them appear vulnerable and incapable of shouldering the responsibilities of their job.
CNN reports that Korean women used an average of 19.7% of their menstruation leaves in 2017, down from 23.6% in 2013. This data shows how menstrual leave is sometimes viewed as a taboo topic not to be discussed at work. Women in Korea, for instance, have openly discussed the challenges they face in requesting menstrual leave despite being legally entitled to do so. Menstrual pain is still not accepted as a valid reason for leave in workplaces where most employees are men. This results in some women being incredibly reluctant to use their rights—not because they don't want to, but out of concern for the additional burden their coworkers will have to shoulder while they are away.
When it comes to maternity leave, more than 120 countries have endorsed maternity policies thus far, yet each country has a different policy. In Estonia, expectant mothers are entitled to 20 weeks of fully compensated maternity leave, followed by an additional 62 weeks of "bonus" parental leave. Austria, for instance, provides a minimum of 16 weeks at 100% pay, followed by an optional additional 44 weeks at 73.1% pay as an option. Finally, Korea pays 84.1% on average for 12 weeks, but utilizing this leave often results in lower income. Depending on the mother's or father's income, these optional weeks may pay a different percentage.
In 2001, Korea's total fertility rate (TFR) dropped below 1.3. It has been declining ever since. In 2022, the TFR was reported as an alarming 0.78. Thus, Korea will be home to a super-aging population as the number of deaths now outpaces the number of births. According to experts, factors contributing to these demographic transitions in the region include stressful work environments, stagnant earnings, growing living expenses, shifting views on marriage and gender equality, and rising youth dissatisfaction. Another important element that affects the fertility rate is the perception that having children is a barrier to women's careers, making it more difficult for them to return to and continue working in their chosen fields after childbirth. Furthermore, there is a rising belief that living alone and not having children puts women in a far better position for the future than following the conventional route of marriage and motherhood.
Korea has experienced rapid and significant changes to its working environment as a result of modernity, COVID-19, and the problems created by the world’s lowest fertility rates. As a result, there is a rising awareness of how to provide a more sustainable work-life balance for women, particularly in terms of certain physical factors that should be taken into consideration. A 2022 study claims that low fertility will exacerbate economic issues in many developed nations and that maternity and parental leave are important pro-natal policies. One of the main causes of low fertility is gender disparity in the distribution of home and professional activity. Therefore, leave policies may help to equalize this distribution and enhance fertility. Although there is currently limited evidence on the relationship between women's leave and fertility, there is a growing need to better understand how to strike the appropriate balance between career and family for women in modern society.
While Korea is attempting to increase fertility, there is still a long way to go. Because of the exponential fall in birth rates occurring not only in Korea but also in other East Asian countries like Japan and China, it is difficult to see how the economy and society will adjust to these changing demographics. With issues such as low fertility rates that are heavily influenced by marriage and childbirth ideologies as well as persistent gender disparities in the workforce, it may be more important now than ever for Korea to consider how to manage work-life balance for women, who are especially susceptible to physiological changes throughout their lifetime.
In conclusion, many nations today are paying close attention to menstruation, maternity, and menopausal leave legislation, particularly as gender-equal work conditions, fertility rates, and the need to accommodate human physiological concerns become more important in modern societies. Whether women and men in the workplace agree that women's leave is an acceptable policy varies by country. It goes without saying that in today's society, where women are actively employed in a variety of fields, leaders and policymakers must take into account how the working environment, physiological demands, and fertility rate may be affecting one another.
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About the Author
Ms. Amy Suna Kim, Program Coordinator
Amy Suna Kim recently graduated with a master’s degree in International Studies from the Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul National University. Before this, Amy lived in the U.S., where she completed her Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Religion at Cornell College. Amy is not new to Asia Society. Previously, she assisted our colleagues at Asia Society Philippines as a program management intern. Amy will be responsible for brainstorming new ideas for upcoming projects and raising the visibility of Asia Society Korea across various audiences. She is fluent in both English and Korean.