Photo: Author's own

Recent legislative limitations placed on women’s rights to abortion in the US, similar to those in Northern Ireland, are a timely reminder of how certain aspects of society hate and want to control women, and the ways in which that hate often manifests. Gabrielle Blair (@designmom) argues on twitter that 100% of unwanted pregnancies result from irresponsible male ejaculation. Yet it is women’s bodies that are subject to the trauma either of pregnancy or backstreet abortion, while men suffer no consequence. These odious, and explicitly anti-women laws can be contextualised in a history, and if we’re not careful, a future of policing women’s bodies. This policing manifests publicly in law, to righteous outcry, and in violence, both economic and physical. But also in individual, habitual and internalised ways, in intimate, domestic and perhaps mundane settings.

Women manage their bodies in a world that is hostile to, or neglectful of their material reality. This includes the management of menstruation in environments such as the workplace. Though there is increasingly vocal activism relating to ending period poverty, boasting impressive results including free menstrual hygiene products in schools in Scotland, and to some extent the normalising of periods (including the recent addition of a ‘period emoji’) in the arts and in sport, little recognition has been paid to how menstruation, and in some cases, associated gynaecological health issues are managed by women at work.

Historically, periods were used as an excuse to exclude women from work. However, given the proliferation of women in paid employment in the UK since the 1950s, it is now a safe assumption that large numbers of economically active women will be experiencing periods at work at any given time. It’s also clear, given the length of time it has taken to get any form of employment protection and support for pregnant women and mothers, that workplaces were designed with men in mind

Where men, or male bodies, are considered the ‘norm’, there is limited provision for those with alternative body types (see also disabled workers…etc). Certainly little effort has been made to understand, or acknowledge women’s menstruation needs, other than to provide sanitary bins in workplace toilets, despite women identifying their reproductive health as a public health issue. Indeed, workplace advancements for women, relating to maternity leave, discrimination and pay have only ever been incremental and consequence of tenacious activism and lobbying.

This often results in working environments where women have to engage in labour additional to their paid work. First and foremost, there is the physical labour of managing periods. This includes the management of blood where the flow can vary, be inconsistent and catch women by surprise. Women might bring to work a variety of different products dependent on where in their cycle they are, keeping those products in a discreet but handy place, disposing of those products when used. It can include taking medication for pain relief, managing cramps, going back and forward to the toilet more regularly, or kitchen facilities to get more fluids, hot drinks or to microwave heat packs, or fill hot water bottles if available.

Approximately 1 in 5 women report pain so severe it interferes with their daily activities each month. Some women get tender breasts leading up to their period, which might have implications for those wearing protective clothing, working in security services for example. Other symptoms can include fatigue, shooting pains or bloating, all of which are likely to represent difficulties for those in service industries, retail or hospitality where they are on their feet all day.  All these issues are further exacerbated for women experiencing gynaecological health conditions, which place additional parameters on women’s productivity and might be damaging to their career and earning potential. For example, a study in 2011 found women with endometriosis experienced reduced work performance, losing on average of almost 11 hours of work each week.

There is also the social, or emotional labour of managing periods. This can include attempting to hide or mitigate symptoms of pre-menstrual tension from male colleagues, or dismissing symptoms as a (suspiciously regular) stomach ache to shield their sensitivities from the reproductive system from which every single human being on the planet was made. Women have expressed concerns that they will ‘bleed through’, worrying that they will mark office equipment, as well as manage the embarrassment of having blood on their clothing. One woman in America has reported being fired for not adequately managing her periods, and the shop chain Lidl has been accused of spying on staff in Germany regarding how many times they used the toilet and accessing details on their menstrual cycles. In these types of contexts we see the occurrence of period stigma, which although it is being challenged by activists, still clearly functions to limit opportunities for women to articulate their workplace needs, and consequently menstruation management becomes an individual project for women at work.

Women in some countries, with examples in the UK, Egypt, Japan and Korea are allowed to request days off work when on their period. There are obvious objections to this. It suggests that menstruation is a disease or an affliction and could present employers with another stick to beat women with. Though women are taking informal, or undisclosed period leave anyway, potentially, it could lead to women who seek menstrual leave being paid less or be given less authority, and increase levels of sexism and stigmatisation in the workplace. Period poverty affects those in work as much as it impacts those out of work, especially considering the number of people in paid employment experiencing in-work poverty. The cost of menstrual hygiene products is prohibitive for those on the breadline, and there are reports of women taking unpaid time off work as they can’t afford the products they need to manage their menstruation. In a context of a very real decline in the level or promise of good, secure work that can sustain a household budget, and increase in precarious and zero-hour work, this issue is likely to continue to propagate unless properly addressed.

But how to address it? It seems unlikely that ‘awareness raising’ is up to the task. Society is aware of women’s bodies. Aware enough to legislate against, limit and control them. Retailers are aware of women’s bodies. Aware enough to sell endless products to make us palatable, including perfumed menstrual hygiene products, onto which, if television adverts are to be believed, we pourblue fluid once a month while laughing (at what?), engaging in endless sport and dressing exclusively in white. Further, presenting a moral case to employers has been demonstrably less effective than presenting a business case, and that is likely to be true of the argument to better support menstruating employees. Perhaps visibility is the answer, and as ever change will be incumbent on brave women taking risks with their livelihoods to render visible what is so regularly hidden.

Is it time to paint the town red?


*The authors have submitted an application for funding to run an event in Edinburgh, 7/11/19, ‘Her bloody project’, to explore the ways in which humour can be used to address managing menstruation in the workplace.

Kate Sang is Professor of Gender and Employment Studies at Heriott Watt University. Her research focusses on how women and disabled people navigate highly skilled employment. Her research projects include disability in scientific and academic careers, gynaecological health in academia.