‘I feel unwell. I have my period.’ Can you imagine such a phrase being common in the workplace?
I am more inclined to imagine the sentence ‘I don’t feel well today, I won’t come to work’ – without the need to explain why. If you have a secure, open and honest relationship with your employer, and if the relationship is based on a shared and thoughtful perspective to what the employee brings to the company and what conditions are needed for it, then the employee should be able to honestly say ‘not today’ without fearing of being stigmatised for it.
I understand that the phrase ‘I don’t feel well today’ without further explanation is safer in a reality where menstruation is considered something negative, by women as well. You mentioned stigmatisation, and I actually intend to make a point here: shouldn’t menstruation as a thing that happens regularly to half of humanity be approached and discussed openly?
Normalising menstruation is like trying to normalise day and night. Day and night were there before we even started normalising anything. According to psychological definitions of a norm, menstruation is a quantitative norm (if something is frequent, this means it is normal), a cultural norm (a norm is what a group recognises as the norm) and a theoretical norm (i.e., something has been established as a norm).
Let’s stop here for a moment: isn’t the stigma accompanying menstruation the cultural norm – rather than menstruation itself?
In cultural terms, we do have a number of tropes that affect the situation of women, such as the concepts of women’s impurity that date back a long time and the need to isolate them during menstruation. Today, however, PMS is used as a joke and a tool to disparage women, a reason not to talk to them and not to take them seriously, which also is a kind of avoidance of them. It is men who created this concept. And it still prevails.
However, let’s talk about the theoretical norm in the context of the menstrual cycle. We assume that the working week has 40 hours, divided into five days, and our work performance is accounted for in a pre-designed quarterly or annual scheme. The teal revolution in management will make us part with this norm sooner than later. It makes you approach your performance not from the perspective of external indicators, but from the perspective of what is happening inside you. The idea is to see the moments when you can plan your work, when you can perform it, how long you can focus, i.e., perform deep work on your project, how you can move to closure and learning lessons for the future. It is those periods, or cycles, that make us different from each other. And an important skill for today’s managers should be the ability to detect these cycles, rather than forcing people to fit into pre-designed patterns.
Are we different – men and women? Or more broadly, do we as employees have different performance cycles?
We differ as human beings. Cyclic performance is not just a feminine phenomenon, although it is certainly easier to notice in menstruating individuals. People who do not menstruate are more likely to ignore the messages being sent by their body.
How should we talk about menstruation then?
Often, but how exactly?
There are two ways, basically. One is based on your own experience: this is what happens with me. It is difficult to argue with such a statement, for you cannot respond by saying: ‘No, that’s not what happens’. However, this kind of approach can prevent you from discussing important issues. Another way is that you can start talking about your needs, expressing your needs. It is good to admit our body has its needs. The work environment can then try to meet these in line with the hierarchy chosen by employees.
But at the company – like in society – not all groups have the same vote and can be equally heard. Shouldn’t the company impose at least some norms?
If we want this to be a norm, if it entails amendments to, e.g., work regulations, it should be preceded by a discussion. Top-down initiatives in large organisations may face resistance. And the resistance is not against the needs of other people but to the rules that are arbitrarily imposed. This may also entail a sense of injustice that someone else’s needs have been recognised, and mine haven’t. Take menstrual leave for example. A menstruating person may benefit from more comfort as a result but at the same time fall from grace in the team.
What if we reject certain needs of differences in the discussion?
If we invite employees to a meeting regarding needs, who will not attend? What do you think?
Those who simply don’t believe they would ever be heard and their needs be met?
No. White, heterosexual men in management positions will be absent from the meeting because they are in power, are privileged, and are afraid they might lose power and privilege as a result of facing the differences. In practice it turns out that people who have needs talk about them, while people whose needs are met sabotage the conversation. From this perspective, the latter group also needs to be taken care of.
How do you translate this into a conversation about menstruation?
If someone says it is not a problem or that it is too early to deal with it or that the company would lose out on it, these are people who need help because they feel threatened. They are unable to enter into an open dialogue about their needs. The only thing that protects them is the power of the existing system. And the power is often violent. People who communicate their needs, menstrual or otherwise, are in a stronger position psychologically, and it may turn out in a short time they are stronger socially as well when public awareness of the topic increases and people start expecting change.
What are the benefits of breaking taboos such as those around menstruation?
Taboo is a constraint, it’s like a fence. If you take down the fence, you can go where you have never been before. Taboos also make us believe we are alone with something, so breaking it means that you can feel a community that has a similar experience, even if members of the community face the experience in their individual ways.
At the same time, this space is tabooed for a reason. Inconsiderate, insensitive conversations about menstruation can be hurtful, so when you cross the taboo line, you should remember you are stepping on a soft and delicate ground, so it is important to look out and be particularly responsive to the reactions you get.
Conversations about menstruation sometimes drift towards highlighting biological differences, which are taken as a definitive proof that women are weaker, less predictable and less dependable. How do you respond to that?
Our biological differences go way beyond gender alone. It has been scientifically proven that our soma, our biological functioning, is the carrier of our psyche and cognitive functioning. If you don’t trust your body, your biology, you will simply stop functioning.
Maciej Jonek, social psychologist, University of Lower Silesia
Interview by Anna Zaleska
The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl on 28 January 2022