This is a man’s world: a menstrual explanation of the gender pay gap

The world has been designed fitfully, but approximately, by wealthy, white men. Finding situations where it seems rational to discriminate against women is common, but remember that the system’s rigged. There are lots of ways of making the world a better place that are suppressed.

Institutions refer to the explicit rules of life (what time do you start work?) to the implicit (normal people start work at 9). These rules have changed and evolved over time, but they started off very much in favour of the people who wrote them.

A lot of the time these implicit rules go unquestioned, either because you don’t think to or do and don’t want to look weird, they persevere. But because these rules were set fitfully, but approximately, by wealthy, white men this unspoken toleration means that the world continues to favour those who set the rules.

How about an example to illustrate? A menstrual explanation of the gender pay gap I came across last week, although the paper dates from 2006.

Tim finds a rational reason for the gender pay gap: periods. It’s actually quite a cute study he links to, as far as study design goes. The authors discover that women take slightly more sick days than men, they look for correlations and find a correlation at 28 days that doesn’t exist for men.

Women end up being paid less because the extra sick days make them look bad. They’re not actually worse at their jobs and the sick days are unavoidable, but managers still end up using sick days as a partial proxy for performance and this damages women’s pay. [1]

This accounts for about 18% of the observed gender pay gap. Not huge, but not chopped liver. I’ve never had period pains, and I don’t plan to, because they sound fucking awful. That they’re costing women money seems to me to be taking the piss.  Tim declares this is just “rational discrimination.” I’ll leave that hanging there for my lady readers to take up with him personally.

I would have thought the problem here was obvious. Why are women forced to work when they cannot? Why are they personally penalised for a system designed to ensure they fail? Seems like the system is to blame. Regular days off and holiday have been designed for people who do not regularly shed their uterine lining.

Of course, the system regulating when we don’t work is really complex and involves every firm in the world, every system of statutory time off, and all employment contracts. That’s the problem with institutions and the implicit rules of life, they’re kinda everywhere.

So, solutions.

One option would be to follow the “economist’s answer” and say that is “rational discrimination” which we cannot do anything about. I don’t like that. Plus that’s the wrong reaction on it’s own terms. The actual economist’s answer, without the scare quotes, has two parts.

  1. This is bad and we can leave this distortion in place and tax and transfer a small payment to all women to make up for it. This makes it as if the problem doesn’t exist.
  2. This is bad but people will start firms hiring women with heavy periods on flexible contracts and make a killing as these women are currently underutilised. MoonCupGemini or something. This will eventually eliminate the problem.

One other option is to smash patriarchal capitalism. Which sounds extreme…probably a post for another time.

More likely to win widespread agreement would be to subtly alter the unwritten rules of society to take into account the requirements of half the population. This will involve changing working practices slightly but should cause less disruption than the status quo as time off becomes routine and planned, not ad hoc and chaotic.

Men are born, hit puberty and get taller and hairier. It’s kinda pathetic that a lot of the institutions of the world are still designed with that individual in mind. There’s nothing rational about the system, other than it being designed for the powerful and suiting the powerful. It’s just another example of one of the more subtle sexist structures of society.


[1] Here’s the link and abstract:

In most Western countries illness-related absenteeism is higher among female workers than among male workers. Using the personnel dataset of a large Italian bank, we show that the probability of an absence due to illness increases for females, relative to males, approximately 28 days after a previous illness. This difference disappears for workers age 45 or older. We interpret this as evidence that the menstrual cycle raises female absenteeism. Absences with a 28-day cycle explain a significant fraction of the male-female absenteeism gap. To investigate the effect of absenteeism on earnings, we use a simple signaling model in which employers cannot directly observe workers’ productivity, and therefore use observable characteristics – including absenteeism – to set wages. Since men are absent from work because of health and shirking reasons, while women face an additional exogenous source of health shocks due to menstruation, the signal extraction based on absenteeism is more informative about shirking for males than for females. Consistent with the predictions of the model, we find that the relationship between earnings and absenteeism is more negative for males than for females. Furthermore, this difference declines with seniority, as employers learn more about their workers’ true productivity. Finally, we calculate the earnings cost for women associated with menstruation. We find that higher absenteeism induced by the 28-day cycle explains 11.8 percent of the earnings gender differential.


11 thoughts on “This is a man’s world: a menstrual explanation of the gender pay gap

  1. Hey, have you actually thought about people being paid for the work that they do? If I don’t work I don’t get paid – but then i am just a man.
    Tim does NOT find that menstruation explains the pay gap – he finds that it explains PART of it – and differential absenteeism, excluding menstruation, explains MORE. Basically women get paid less because they work less. Shock! Horror!
    It is totally wrong that women should be paid less just because they are women but it is also wrong that they should get paid as much for a 38-hour week as men do for a 47-hour week

    1. No, the study quite explicitly talks about time off being used as a signal and impacting gender pay differentials as a signal, not as a blocker on total hours worked.

      The whole point of the post is to point out that women are disadvantaged because working hours have been set in a way that ignores the needs of half the population and they’re suffering for it.

      1. PLEASE read the report that you quote. They study a bank which uses time-off to provide an estimate of productivity and calculate the effect that one specific sub-set of this has on pay.
        Working hours are set according to the need of the business – they ignore the needs of 100% of the population except where these impact on the ability of the business to hire workers. If you read the report you will find that the 28-day-cycle did not apply to women over 45 so you are talking about 25% (or less) of the workforce and less than 20% of the population.
        So your argument would be that if I chose to take every fourth Friday off to attend the mosque (I don’t) I should be paid the same as Jimmy who turns up to work every day without fail. Maybe Ali should take every Friday (maybe even Ramadan) off and get the same wage as someone who works full-time? When do you reach the privatisation of the Kuwait/Alaska position where everyone gets a salary whether they work or not, but paid by the employer not the state?
        The report SPECIFICALLY states that PART of the pay-gap is because women under 45, on average, do less work than men or older women. They are disadvantaged because they choose not to work some days – and so are the men who fail to turn up because they have hangovers (read the report). I can have more sympathy for those females than for the
        men with hangovers but that is not the point. The bank is paying them to work: if they choose not to work, why should they be paid?

  2. Hmm. I don’t buy this. The traditional “work” of women – cooking, cleaning, caring for children – does not allow any time off for menstruation blues. I’d guess the main cause of women’s absenteeism is the traditional “work” of women (which most still do in addition to their paid jobs) getting in the way of their paid work. Throwing a sickie because of “period pains” means you get sick pay. Taking time off to meet your child’s teacher does not. .

    1. Good point. That kinda supports the overall argument of the post even if it undermines that particular study. Although the study tries to account for that by looking for a correlation at 28 days.

    2. Of course you are right. But the study recognises that “period pains” is only part of the excess of female “sickness absence” and tries to calculate the effect just of that.
      Incidentally, there is reason to suspect that quite a few women throw a sickie for other causes of absenteeism since the differential between male and female sick pay is far too great to be accounted for by “period pains”. popularly viewed as being mainly to look after sick kids rather than meet their teacher.

        1. Work does *not* enforce traditional female roles – to the contrary it wants all its workforce to work like men but tolerates those who choose to follow traditional female roles (maybe I should exclude American banks and law firms, but in general that is the case).
          As to penalising them: not in this country. Employers have to pay women the same as men doing the same job. My former (for most of my working life) employer paid full pay during sick leave, so male staff were effectively cross-subsidising female staff on sick pay as well as pensions (and men were expected to work overtime when needed but women had the choice – to their credit the two spinsters in very senior roles did more than their fair share of supervising overtime)..
          Italy is less good at enforcing equality legislation but the report states that men who took above-average sick leave suffered *greater* loss of earnings than women who did so.

          1. Funnily enough Italy is the only country without a gender pay gap. All the women who don’t have high earning power eventually drop out, so even though the best women face discrimination those still in the workforce are so much more talented than their male counterparts it evens out. A reminder to never trust statistics.

            I think I’ve gone too meta with this post even for my readers.

            The point isn’t firms being awkward. Many of them try very hard to be accommodating. The point is that the idea of work is still built around a five day work week with the concessions to reality for women bolted on. It’s kinda a radical position, but that’s the point.

          2. Er (second Er), work is something that earns money for the firm (except in old-fashioned prisons where it is part of a punishment) That is reality.
            It used to be a six-day working week, dawn to dusk, for men and for the self-employed (overwhelmingly men) it can still be seven days a week (in winter my self-employed neighbour leaves home before dawn). If you know a single cow-herd who works a five-day week, do let me know.
            You seem to think that an employer should be able to plan workloads around the assumption that certain individuals will be absent due to “period pains” on certain days – would you like to be an employer or head of HR going round and asking every single female employee which day of the month she expects to suffer from those (given that it is often not an exact 28 day cycle)? Also that women who turn up every working day because they grit their teeth or have period pains at the weekend should be paid the same as those who only work 95% or 90% or even 85% as much. Most small businesses don’t have that big a profit margin that they can survive if they are overpaying a significant minority of staff 11%. Just look at what has happened to the UK textile industry since Blair introduced the NMW: most of the firms have gone out of business and more than three-quarters of those employed in the industry in 1997 have lost their jobs. Also, if it does survive those who turn up every day will resent the requirement to subsidise those who don’t and leave for somewhere where they feel appreciated.

        2. Er, if Italy does not have a gender pay gap how can menstrual periods account for 11.8% (NB not 18%) of something that does not exist?
          “All the women who don’t have high earning power eventually drop out, so even though the best women face discrimination those still in the workforce are so much more talented than their male counterparts it evens out.”
          What is the %age of women in the labour force? 39.7% of total i.e. 66% of men employed and over 70% if you exclude those women with children under 1
          Firstly nothing like 70% of men have high earning power
          Secondly are *all* of these so much more talented than the average man?
          The follow-up is “pull the other one, it has bells on”

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