Could employers be more accommodating to
the monthly cycle, and if so, how? Join us as we explore the unspoken office
code for all things menstruation…
The stigma attached to periods manifests in
many ways and in the workplace, it can often prove quite a difficult obstacle
to overcome. In 2018, there were 15.3 million women aged over 16 in employment,
with the total female employment rate being 71.4% — the highest ever figure
since 1971, when records began. Many of these women will be dealing with PMS on
the job, but this is often overlooked by bosses and menstrual taboos can leave
women feeling isolated.
Adding periods to the workplace equality equation
Women are often dismissed as being overcome
by hormones when ‘the time of the month’ strikes, a jibe which has left women
feeling that nothing period related should be voiced at work. This professional
silencing of periods is a result of the outdated belief that periods make women
‘weak’ and ‘irrational’ as they bow to the mercy of their hormones. These attitudes
may have made girls feel that from their first period, to suffering from
problems such as postpartum
bleeding as a result of pregnancy, they shouldn’t openly discuss menstruation
in school, which then progresses on into the workplace.
This highlights that women have been a
longstanding focal group for pushing workplace equality into action. As the
times have changed the breadth of issues has only grown. Periods have become
one of the many key concerns for women within the workplace, and there’s a
historic legacy of keeping period-talk hushed in corporate environments.
In a recent survey carried out, it was
found that one third of men think that talking about periods in the workplace
is unprofessional. Moreover, periods are viewed as a source of embarrassment in
the workplace, with findings showing women would rather admit to a mistake at
work than talk about their period in front of male coworkers.
In fact, a YouGov survey investigated this
further and only 27% of women whose performance was affected by period pains
had ever admitted to their employer that this was the case and a further 33%
said they’d made up an excuse in the past. Currently, it seems as though women
are left to either grin and bear it in silence, sacrifice their statutory sick
days, or endure the wrath of the menstrual stigma. In 2020, this simply
shouldn’t be the case.
The realities of the workplace period stigma
Back in 2018, after suffering from extreme
menopause symptoms, namely heavy bleeding that had caused anemia, Mandy
Davies took her medication to work. When the container of the diluted
mixture was misplaced, she panicked upon noticing two men drinking water
nearby. Suspecting that her medication could have been in the jug the men were
drinking from, Ms Davies voiced her fear and faced an in-depth investigation
from her company’s health and safety department. This concluded in her being
dismissed under gross misconduct. Her medication hadn’t been in the water in
question, and after a court dispute she was awarded £19,000 in total for the
pay lost and to compensate for injury to feelings.
The case referred to The Equality Act 2010,
which covers nine characteristics — and while period related problems are not
named, the impact of them at their most severe can prevent women from carrying
out their day-to-day tasks, and this is a recognised element of having a
disability. While the symptoms Ms Davies was experiencing are related to the
menopause, they can be common of periods too: heavy bleeding, brain fog and
dizziness — and 57% of women affected by these symptoms of PMS said it had
adversely affected their ability to work. Therefore, many women could be forced
to deal with physical pain and lessened performance for consecutive days at a
time, and this has become the norm.
In a climate where workplace culture is
always evolving, HR departments are facing a diverse range of employee
complaints, and period related issues are having an increased impact on
employee welfare. More than one in ten women have reported being the recipient
of negative comments directed at them in relation to menstruating.
These micro-aggressions are leading to an
increase in presenteeism — where employees who aren’t fit to work still attend
in order to fulfil what is required of them. One study revealed that 80.7% of
respondents said they lost an average of 23.2 days per year to presenteeism and
reduced productivity, linked to being on their period.
Is there a potential solution to break the taboo?
In Japan, a recent move was made by a
department store to assign ‘period badges’ to its female members of staff for
them to wear while they are menstruating. The idea was introduced to help
tackle the stigma of periods, using the pink cartoon of Seiri Chan — whose name
translates to ‘Miss Period’. However, the move faced backlash with claims of
harassment made. It’s highly unlikely that a step like this would be taken in
UK workplaces, but what proactive steps should employers consider taking when
it comes to resolving the stigma?
Emma Barnett, author of Period, It’s About
Bloody Time described that while menstrual leave might not be feasible for
larger companies, making period pain a valid reason for taking sick leave
should become a reality. Or, the potential of introducing flexible working
could be introduced to allow female employees to manage their symptoms. Barnett
also discussed the need for more honesty surrounding periods, captured in her
suggestion that every workplace should have a ‘menstrual policy’, to give women
clearer workplace rights when it comes to periods.
There’s certainly room for adjustment when
it comes to making workplaces more period-friendly, from having set policies in
place to encouraging openness to tackle the menstrual stigma.
House of Commons Library, Andrew Powell,
8/04/2019 Women and The Economy