End the Shame

European companies are starting to offer menstruation-friendly solutions. Yet, objections come from various groups, including feminists.

The British company Totm conducted a survey among women, which showed that more than a half of them would be positively influenced into accepting a job offer if they knew the company was providing free menstrual care products.

Increasingly often, employers in Europe are becoming aware of the fact. In Sweden, the state-subsidised Mensen organisation offers a programme that helps companies to accommodate menstruating people. This involves providing trash cans in restroom stalls, free menstrual pads and tampons, and introducing flexible working hours. Mensen also supports companies that employ blue-collar workers. They face problems accessing not only hygiene products, but also restrooms. ‘Although Sweden is known for respecting women’s rights, the issue of menstruation in the workplace is still problematic. It is something that needs to be part of a conversation, like any other normal function of the body’, argued Klara Rydström, head of the project at Mensen.

The companies that choose to cooperate with Mensen, namely for purposes of undergoing trainings and the implementation of reforms, can be awarded a special certificate confirming the that the employer is menstruation-friendly. The Gothenburg-based start-up Forza Football was the first to claim it in 2019. ‘The certificate evidences our care for providing a good working environment for women’, said Josefin Eklund, a Forza employee at the time. This created a ripple effect. More start-ups from Gothenburg started to provide not only free sanitary products, but also painkillers for menstruating employees.

Still, such initiatives are sometimes criticised. Swedish journalist Ivar Arpi argues that special treatment for women can only worsen anti-feminist sentiments. In his opinion, this suggests men and women are not equal since women’s bodies work differently.

The concept of providing employees with free menstrual pads and tampons is also challenged outside Sweden. ‘Very rarely do companies offer environmentally friendly alternatives, such as reusable menstrual pads, menstrual underwear, discs or cups. By choosing universal, free products, you risk becoming dependent on disposable products’, argued Tara Heuzé-Sarmini, founder of the French menstrual poverty organisation Règles Élémentaires.

Her line of reasoning does not seem to discourage employers from making specific decisions. During the pandemic, more and more companies started to consider supporting their menstruating employees. Theramex, a global pharmaceutical company, is one of many others that decided to make such a move. Its offices around the world have menstrual products available for employees.

Yet, some companies took one step more. French cooperative La Collective and Bristol-based Coexist were among the first in the world to introduce menstrual leave. Several Spanish communes are currently implementing a similar solution at the initiative of local government officials. Any employee who needs it can send a last-minute e-mail to their line manager to request a day off. The absent employee receives full pay for the day. ‘Menstrual leave enables to avoid double pain: the physical one and the pain of lost wages. Especially given that the operations of the cooperative preclude working from home’,  explained Dimitri Lamoureux from La Collective.

Although Coexist managers have seen an increase in engagement and productivity, their decision has sparked a debate about the reasonability of such solutions. Georgette Sand, founder of the feminist association Ophélie Latil, observes that menstrual leave can become a discriminatory factor against women in the labour market. ‘We are already bullied enough’, she said. Critics argue that the policy is patronising and assumes women are weak.

Other people say the solution offers menstruating people an advantage over others. Talent International, an international recruitment company, rebuts these claims. ‘Menstrual leave exercises the principle of justice, since all employees should have the same right to health. Most working environments and policies are developed with the biological traits of men in mind. The solution in question simply supports the nature of women’s bodies’, stated the company’s Berlin branch on its website. Considering that Talent International’s team in Berlin is made up of 80 percent of women, menstrual leave was also introduced there last year. The company argued that it was simply a matter of caring about the physical and mental comfort of its associates.

The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl  on 07 April 2022