Workplaces are becoming more employee-friendly in terms of organisation; many companies provide relaxation areas, dining rooms, terraces or gardens. It turns out, however, that the most natural, human things, such as menstruation, are the most difficult to address. And they are also very hard to even talk about. The topic of menstruation, often considered a taboo, is usually criticised, joked about or misunderstood.
You need to dig quite deep to find the reasons for this. The topic of menstruation, its causes, course and consequences, should be part of the conversations parents have with their children about puberty. Yet, for some reason, this is often not the case. A report commissioned by the Kulczyk Foundation shows that 42 percent of women have never talked about menstruation at home.
Parents think it would be better if the school had this conversation because they don’t know how to talk about it. At the same time, schools considers menstruation a touchy subject because of its associations with sex. And even though sex appears in movies and songs as something associated with adulthood, menstruation is still treated as an embarrassing disease’, said Dr Jacek Wasilewski, PhD, a cultural scientist and language designer from the University of Warsaw.
Studies by the Ponton Group confirm ineffectiveness of Introduction to Family Life classes in this regard. For years, the content of the classes has ignored not only issues related to sexual orientation and contraception, but also genital hygiene.
This is how women internalise destructive messages about femininity: that it is something you should not talk about at home, something to be hidden, something associated with impurity, and which ultimately can even spoil the preparation of food. Studies evidence that such nonsensical myths about menstruation are still rooted in our consciousness.
First edition: menstrual awareness
Menstruation is still considered a private thing that you had better not talk about – just in case. Even though it is a biological phenomenon that affects nearly half of humanity and a statistically similar proportion of the workforce – and we mean not only menstruating women, but also transgender and non-binary individuals. A study conducted by Thinx in the US found that 51 percent of men consider it inappropriate to mention menstruation in the workplace, and up to 58 percent of women felt ashamed because of their period.
A female colleague at the desk next to yours, your subordinate or your boss suddenly become women who need to hide their periods. If they are able to get to work at all. In its report titled ‘Menstruacja’ [Menstruation], the Kulczyk Foundation found that 17 percent of women in Poland missed work or school due to their period.
At work, however, a menstruating woman cannot afford to be less available or flexible. According to female respondents, they need to stay motivated to function even when they feel unwell. Why? Because they feel the pressure to be effective and productive at any cost. Otherwise, they risk their position in the company and the salary that they truly deserve.
Even though a quarter of a century ago the Beijing Declaration was adopted to support the position of women in the world, even though the UN created a special unit to fight for women’s equality, and even though gender equality was included in the Sustainable Development Goals, women still have to prove their worth. Just in order to combat gender inequalities, they need to fight for equal pay (in the EU they earn 14 percent less per hour than men, in Poland it is 8.5 percent less), for equal opportunities to hold professional positions and for equal treatment in the workplace. At the same time, menstruation clearly shows the huge gap between the bold declarations, even the most spectacular ones, and the harsh reality.
Because of their period, women are often faced with lack of understanding or empathy from their managers. Sometimes, they work in strenuous and uncomfortable conditions (they are forced to carry loads, or have no breaks), and are consequently constrained in being able to use the restroom. Moreover, as the report says, they have poorer access to interesting projects. Managers say they are less effective, and after all someone else can do it better.
Trying to tackle the problem, the Kulczyk Foundation launched the Career Cycle social campaign and joined forces with the Polish Business Roundtable, the Employers of Poland, Okresowa Koalicja [Period Coalition] and Sukces Pisany Szminką [Success Written in Lipstick]. The programme is aimed at employers who want to ensure gender equality and take care of the health of their employees.
The first edition, which has just launched, aims at building awareness in the area of menstrual health and making menstrual products more widely available at workplaces.
Menstruation is not a superstition
When you ridicule people with questions like: ‘Why are you so upset? Are you on your period?’ or ‘What’s up with you? Is it because your Aunt Flo is here that you are so moody?, you only worsen the feeling in menstruating people of being inferior and do nothing to eliminate stereotypes about menstruation.
Unfortunately, these things are said not only by men but by women, too. And the myths that almost 30 percent of women still believe in, such as refraining from pickling cucumbers during menstruation, dyeing your hair, baking cakes ,or about not being able to get pregnant during this time, which are passed down from one generation to another, are unhelpful for normalising the subject.
‘We must fight the taboo, the stigma and the superstitions about menstruation that are still alive in Poland. Your period, which signifies you are ready to make a new life, should be a time to celebrate. Instead, it has unfortunately become a reason to humiliate women around the world. This needs to stop. Women must understand that every woman is a being of harmony, happiness and meaning. And that everything that happens to them is good when it is in harmony with nature. And that real men who respect nature and other human beings should support what is natural in a woman. This support should also be reflected in the economic life. Women should not have to pay more for the mere fact of being women. This needs to be changed’, believed Dominika Kulczyk, President of the Kulczyk Foundation.
Natural conversations about the natural process
Many places, including the workplace, need not only education but also normalisation of topics such as menstruation. Offering the right narrative is a technique that involves approaching a seemingly difficult topic as a regular human affair. However, in order to be able to have a normal conversation on the topic, we need to emphasise that your language and your manner of communication are very important. Dr Jacek Wasilewski, PhD, thinks that where one gets one’s knowledge about the topic is also very important.
‘The main source of information about menstruation for teenage girls is their friends, their mother or online forums. Knowledge depends therefore on how credible the speaker is rather than on objective sources such as biology lessons or a physician. Also, the taboo associated with the topic makes it difficult to verify one’s knowledge directly. Plus, medical lingo can sometimes be awkward, somewhat pompous, and strange to ears unaccustomed to it. This is why it is so important to neutrally introduce menstruation into the everyday language. Otherwise, the taboo will immediately associate it with the feelings of shame, inappropriateness, the need to whisper and giggle about it’, he explained.
Dr Wasilewski likewise added that a neutral language that is close to everyday life will slowly eliminate these harmful associations or simply form a new standard of conversation. Such a standard will be more empowering for people to bring up menstrual problems rather than leave them unsaid.
‘The topic of menstruation at the swimming pool for example was taken up by tampon manufacturers, and it turned out you can talk about it in very practical terms. It is much easier to facilitate and model such a conversation than to expect people who were raised in fear of the topic to start the conversation on their own. When you have a runny nose, you can simply ask someone for a tissue. Do you approach menstruation in the same way?’ asked Dr Wasilewski.
Wearing a pad is not a reason to feel worse
The engagement of companies in an initiative aimed at combating menstrual exclusion is a step toward period normalisation. What can employers do to foster this?
First of all, provide menstruating people with access to restrooms, where menstruating people can freely change their menstrual products. In addition to toilet paper, soap and paper towels, provide your corporate restroom with an adequate stock of menstrual supplies. Initiate actions aimed at reimbursing menstrual pads, tampons or cups. You can also schedule work in such a way that people who operate workstations or cash registers, for example, can change their menstrual products.
These are only guidelines but it would be wise to consider them should the decision be taken to join the Career Cycle. As you can read at www.cyklkariery.pl, the programme is supposed to change our perception of key gender equality issues.
It is, however, paramount to enable neutral communication about menstruation in the workplace. This is important not only for employers but also personal trainers and managers. The latter have a plethora of options to implement anti-discrimination solutions.
Employers can and should clearly and transparently inform their employees using the company’s internal communication channels about menstrual health topics. This will erase the taboo about menstruation in the workplace and facilitate an open conversation.
Dr Wasilewski admits that everyone has a problem with whatever it is that we pretend to not notice.
‘At the same time, when menstruation appears in workplace regulations, for example, the word becomes more familiar to everyone’, he emphasised. ‘It is also worth modelling the desired behaviours. The idea is to take someone who is considered naturally competent to talk about menstruation, like an occupational medicine physician or an OHS specialist, and start a normal discussion where the audience can see it is okay to openly talk about periods’, he explained.
Managers can also appoint an appropriate team of employees to come up with a model to enact to make the workplace menstruation-friendly.
The Kulczyk Foundations suggests to take a look at the solutions implemented from time to time. To talk to company employees at different levels and in various positions, conduct a survey to find out you can do something better or simply differently.
It is extremely important to build awareness of menstrual health and share reliable knowledge about it among male and female employees. This will not only benefit relations among people at work but also ensure physical and mental well-being of menstruating people. And that, after all, is the most important thing, both in and outside of the workplace.
By Agnieszka Jarosz:
The text was published at WP.pl on 15 February 2022