Bringing the Period to the Workplace

Chums. Time of the Month. Visit from Aunt Flo. Stomach pain. Code Red. Red Wedding (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin… coincidence or inspiration?).

These are only a handful of the 5,000 slang words used by menstruators all over the world to talk about their menstrual cycles, none of which include the phrases ‘period’, ‘menstrual’, or ‘menstruation’.[1]To be fair, I too have a code: time of the month.

About two weeks ago, as the early afternoon dragged on into midday and the students’ chatter filled the room, I suddenly felt a mini-punch delivered to my lower abdomen, an all too familiar punch. I checked the date, did some complex mental math, and realized that Aunty Flo had dropped in earlier than her scheduled visit. I’d be fine, I reassured myself. It was just a little pain. I would pop an Advil and get back to work. However, this preponement of the Red Wedding had caught me off-guard; I hadn’t brought my medication or my menstrual cup with me to work. With no immediate access to a tampon or sanitary napkin or any toilet paper, I tried not to let my internal panic button blare. Steeling myself, I casually made my way around the office and whispered to my female colleague that I would have to work from home for about an hour due to this unexpected drop-in by my period. One look at my face, and she immediately knew. After all, she’d been in my shoes too often to not know. Understanding and empathizing, she nodded and asked me to go home, assuring me that she’d take care of letting my other colleagues know that I will be working from home for the rest of the day. Grateful, I rushed back home. However, as I sat down with my cup of tea, I wondered why I found these incredibly (and some, ridiculously) indirect ways of talking about my periods to be much more comfortable than calling it for what it was, my period. Whispering, code names, and underplaying my period pain; why was this a part of what I’d internalized as professionalism?

Period Positivity Poster. Illustrations created by Aileen Ng, an Australian artist and illustrator. Image Source: WaterAid Australia [a]
This realization got me thinking about the implications of my own conditioning to deny my period in professional settings, sometimes by even avoiding saying the word. As I sipped my tea, Dumbledore’s words kept playing in my mind. ‘Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself’. Was the discomfort I felt when talking about my periods at work actually my fear? Halfway through drinking my tea, I realized that this discomfort did indeed stem from fear. Fear of rendering certain colleagues uncomfortable around me, fear of being stigmatized, or perhaps, the fear of my own anger at my pain being brushed aside and invalidated as ‘just some cramps’. Funnily enough, for me, this fear was at its worst in the professional realm. At home and in college, I’ve openly talked about my periods with everyone, from my dad to my professors and friends; in fact, my go-to-person, for comfort, food, or to vent during my periods is my dad. Why then, in a professional setting, did all these fears seem so viscerally real?

I realized that all my life, I’d been thinking of the cramps and pain from periods as somehow less real than if they were a consequence of, for instance, a stomach illness. To me, period pain was no excuse to stop working or justify taking time off. Why did I assign period pain to be not as important, or sometimes, not even as pain, when compared to pain from any other injury? Would I not have comfortably asked for the rest of the day off if I were suffering from diarrhea or some other ‘legitimate’ medical issue? These were the thoughts that continued to claw at me. Part of me wanted to brush aside this reflection; revelatory as they were, was talking about these issues in a blog even necessary? The other part of me, the one that was having a mini-wrestling match, fought back; undermining my own pain and lack of access simply played into reinforcing narratives that I had internalized my entire life. Why should I not be able to talk about my period as easily as I would about a headache? Having talked about inclusion in my previous blog post, I think that this is an equally important issue to be talked about, without which, any conversation about true inclusivity in the workplace is woefully incomplete.

Unexpected Visitor

#DONTHIDEITPERIOD. Image Source: Don’t Hide It Period. [b]
To contextualize the realities of menstrual cycles and symptoms at work, I looked at several studies published on this subject in the past decade. A survey conducted by Free the Tampon Foundation found that 86 percent of the women they interviewed had started their period in public without the supplies they needed.[2] Further, when asked about how they felt or would feel if they started their period in public without a pad, tampon, or other absorbent, 57 percent said they would feel embarrassed, while 35 percent of them said it was a cause for panic.[3]Although this survey was conducted in the U.S., from my personal experiences, I would think that within the Indian context, these statistics would be higher, if not the same. These numbers not only represented the universality of such circumstances, but also a reason to be frustrated. This stigma (or taboo, in some cases) surrounding talking about periods perpetuates a culture that minimizes and dismisses period pain instead of acknowledging, respecting, and listening to those undergoing it. Such dismissals of pain in turn feed into larger narratives that delegitimize women’s pain. Upon donning my research hat, I found that there exists a name for this phenomenon, the ‘pain bias’.[4]Several studies have found that women are less likely to receive pain medication even though they reported more frequent and severe pain levels and more likely to be told that their pain is “psychosomatic”, or in their head.[5]That I spent a good 15-20 minutes minimizing and then later denying my own physical pain only highlighted the reality behind these numbers.

Support Systems, Or Lack Thereof, In the Workplace

Period Poster. #menstruationmatters. Image Source: Action Aid, U.K. [c]
Further, this internal stigma is only compounded by the lack of support from managers and colleagues. In a survey conducted by The Chartered Institute of Personal Development, six out of ten respondents said that they would not feel comfortable talking about periods at all with either colleagues or management and 57 percent said that they’ve had to lie to their managers about why they wanted to take sick leave. These statistics worsened in male-dominated organizations, where 82 percent of the interviewees said that they felt period stigma when compared to the 54 percent of interviewees in female-dominated organizations.[6]In India, where men constitute 74% of the workforce in the nonprofit sector, translating these statistics into relevant conversations is vital.[7]Not being able or allowed to discuss menstrual health and consequent symptoms can leave menstruators feeling alone and embarrassed and only serves to reinforce internalized go-to responses like ignoring and undermining one’s own health.

Another insidious effect of this period stigma and taboo is that even when most women do talk about their period, they almost always do so with their female friends, colleagues, or managers. Comfortable as this might be, it reinforces the idea that only those who menstruate need to be responsible for learning, discussing, or being aware about menstruation and goes on legitimizes the ignorance of those who don’t, who also happen to be the ones occupying managerial positions in most professional settings.[8]

Putting Up An Appearance

A key reason behind this discomfort, one that repeatedly came up in my conversations with working women in Vizag, was that women do not want to appear weak, inferior, or look like they require any special treatment. This especially rings true since historically, menstruation was used as a reason to keep women out of the workforce.[9]It would make sense that after decades of fighting and finally being allowed to work, and still facing challenges related to being a working woman, women would be hesitant or averse to raising their concerns regarding menstruation, lack of access to menstrual hygiene products, and resulting health-related issues. However, as I started to unpack this idea, I realized that by that logic, we’re subconsciously accepting our current work schedules and environments, which were designed for men, as the norm. As Professor Vostral puts it, “If men are held up as the norm, then the assumption is you should be able to work all the time. And so there’s a lot of pressure… to have women cover and hide their periods and just keep going…”[10]So maybe it is time we re-evaluate who our professional and work spaces were designed for, whom we want them to be designed for, and assuming that that ‘whom we want’ includes all menstruators, women and trans-men, how to take meaningful steps towards making our professional spaces more inclusive for them.

Access to Menstrual Hygiene Supplies

No Shame, Just Pride. Period Positivity Poster. Illustration by Shreeja Chakraborty. Image Source: Youth Ki Awaaz [d]
Lastly, this stigma and the quiet around periods has led to complacency which in turn, has resulted in dismal rates of access to menstrual hygiene products in workplaces in India. Although I found no formal data for this in India, from my experiences and that of my colleagues, friends, and family, I can make an educated guess that the access rates, if available, would be abysmally low. While colleges and schools have finally taken the first steps towards installing absorbent vending machines on their premises, workplaces in India still have a long way to go. For example, heartening as the Supreme Court’s decision is to install three sanitary napkin vending machines, it’s also bittersweet given how trailblazing this decision seems to be to most even as of 2018.[11] With this increased access, women would be less anxious about getting caught off-guard; instead of having to rush home, a nearby chemist or supermarket, or in some cases, anxiously look for stores nearby, women would have the mental peace that comes with knowing that Aunty Flo will be taken care of during her surprise visits. Also, this allows for the inclusion of women or trans-men who might otherwise not be able to access these products.

Tale as Old as Time, With Hope For A New Ending

#periodpositive. #mhday #redisnotadirtycolor. Period Positivity Poster by Medha Kulkarni. Image Source: Youth Ki Awaaz [e]
Maybe one day I’ll be as comfortable asking my colleague, irrespective of their gender, to buy me a pad on their routine supermarket run as easily as I would a snack. Or even better, to grab me one from the office vending machine. But until then, I hope we can at least sit with and challenge our deep discomfort when talking about periods. Moving towards true inclusion in the workplace will involve confronting internalized narratives and tackling them through conversations about periods, the existing stigma, consequences of this stigma, and access to menstrual hygiene products for all those who menstruate. Periods are not a choice, but the bloody truth. Quite literally. So maybe it’s time I take a step to embrace my truth for what it is, work or elsewhere.

Promotional Banner for Oscar-Winning Documentary Short “Period. End of Sentence.” Image Source: France 24 [f]

Text References:

[1]O’Connor, Roisin. “Menstruation Study Finds Over 5,000 Slang Terms for ‘Period’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Mar. 2016, www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/menstruation-study-finds-over-5000-slang-terms-for-period-a6905021.html.

[2]“The Murphy’s Law of Menstruation.” Free The Tampons, https://www.freethetampons.org/uploads/4/6/0/3/46036337/ftt_infographic.pdf

[3]Ibid

[4]Billock, Jennifer. “Pain Bias: The Health Inequality Rarely Discussed.” BBC Future, BBC, 22 May 2018, www.bbc.com/future/article/20180518-the-inequality-in-how-women-are-treated-for-pain.

[5]Pagán, Camille Noe. “When Doctors Downplay Women’s Health Concerns.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/well/live/when-doctors-downplay-womens-health-concerns.html.

[6]Oppenheim, Maya. “Women Face Discrimination over Their Periods at Work: ‘It’s Just an Excuse to Act like a b****’.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 1 Aug. 2019, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women-periods-female-discrimination-workplace-comments-colleagues-work-a9029431.html.

Srinivas, Arjun, and Samarth Bansal. “Gender Gap in Indian Formal Sector Worse than Global Average, LinkedIn Data Shows.” Hindustan Times, 14 Nov. 2018, www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/gender-gap-in-indian-formal-sector-worse-than-global-average-linkedin-data-shows/story-yOtfsFNazeMZbOnjGL9a1I.html.

[8]Okamoto, Nadya. “Why Talking About Menstruation Is Actually a Good Thing.” Teen Vogue, 25 Oct. 2018, www.teenvogue.com/story/period-power-a-manifesto-for-the-menstrual-movement-nadya-okamoto-excerpt.

[9]Hilmantel, Robin. “A History of How Employers Have Addressed Women’s Periods.” Time, 3 Mar. 2016, www.time.com/4246662/period-policies-at-work/.

[10]Ibid.

[11]Ibid. Karelia, Gopi. “Supreme Court Sets an Example on Menstrual Waste, To Install Sanitary Napkin Incinerators.” NDTV, 28 Feb. 2018, https://swachhindia.ndtv.com/supreme-court-sets-an-example-on-menstrual-waste-to-install-sanitary-napkin-incinerators-13348/.

Image References: 

[a] Ng, Aileen. “On The Rag, Shark Week, and Aunty Flo.” WaterAid Australia , 27 May 2019, www.wateraid.org/au/articles/its-time-that-we-end-the-taboo-around-periods-for-everyone-everywhere.

[b] NH1 Design. “Don’t Hide It. Period.” Don’t Hide It. Period., www.donthideitperiod.com.

[c] Sinoway, Leslie, and Communications Team. “Period Posters Busting Period Taboos.” Action Aid, 25 May 2018, www.actionaid.org.uk/blog/news/2016/05/25/five-period-posters-about-periods-that-will-shock-you.

[d] Chakraborty, Shreeja. “No Shame, Just Pride.” Youth Ki Awaaz , www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/05/world-menstruation-hygiene-day/.

[e] Kulkarni , Medha. “It’s Okay To Talk About Menstruation.” Youth Ki Awaaz , www.youthkiawaaz.com/2016/05/world-menstruation-hygiene-day/.

[f] Screengrab, Netflix. “Promotional Banner for Oscar-Winning Documentary Short “Period. End of Sentence.” France 24, 25 February, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190225-india-oscar-winning-documentary-period-end-sentence-stigma-menstruation-zehtabchi

Pallavi is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Vision Aid in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is piloting a scholarship program to provide residential, intensive training to visually impaired students from underprivileged segments of India to reach their full potential. Pallavi’s passion for an inclusive and innovative education policy motivated her most recent project in Hyderabad, funded by the Women and Gender Leadership Fund. She documented how women without access to formal education, particularly those from marginalized communities, have used informal networks and vocational training centers to positively transform their socioeconomic outcomes. Pallavi's first experience in the development sector was as a volunteer teacher for Make a Difference, an organization that works towards empowering vulnerable children in Hyderabad. During college, Pallavi worked as a Fellow at the Mgrublian Center of Human Rights, studying the role of educational institutions and networks, policies, and pedagogies in combating radicalization and promoting socioeconomic independence among high-school students in Kashmir. Engaging with the community by supporting organizations and founding her own service initiatives such as the India Education Project, has been of immense personal and academic importance to her. On campus, she worked as an economic journalist with the Lowe Institute of Political Economy to learn the art of compelling, engaging, and credible data-driven storytelling and writing. Realizing the importance of women role-models, she worked as a part of the founding team of Claremont Women in Business, providing a community network and resources to women on campus for professional pursuits. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Pallavi is eager to gain more experience in the development sector, learn about the complexities, opportunities, and challenges in this space, meet incredible people, and take a step forward in enabling positive change.

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