Offices free from menstruation taboo and stigma

“Working with different companies, I encounter situations that in some of them women do not menstruate at all—for weeks, months or even years. Why? Because of the stress. Because the body thinks it is at war,” explains Iwona Firmanty, a psychologist, business coach and owner of Human Skills. “That is why it is so important for a menstruating woman herself to respect her body. It is a beautiful signal from her body that she is a woman. And it would be great if her company also supported her in these difficult days,” she stresses.

Menstruation is still a taboo in Poland. No matter that it affects a considerable group of employees. Research shows that around 26% of the world’s population and nearly half of the female population are of reproductive age. It also means that a high proportion of all people such as this menstruate. And as the reproductive age coincides with the working age, work and period are completely entwined.

According to the report “Bloody Problem” prepared by Founders Pledge for the Kulczyk Foundation, dignified menstruation rests on four main pillars:

  • access to sanitary materials;
  • access to water and private places to change and dispose of such materials;
  • access to education on menstruation and how to manage it; and
  • a supportive environment.

It is extremely important to meet these conditions. They ensure that a woman can feel safe during her period and is free from the stigma and, above all, can live with dignity and fulfil herself on an equal footing with men. On many levels, including professionally.

The Kulczyk Foundation has joined its forces with the Polish Business Council, Employers of the Republic of Poland, the Periodic Coalition and Lipstick Success to launch the Career Cycle social campaign. This is an innovative programme primarily aimed at employers who have the health and wellbeing of their employees at heart.

The first edition of the campaign has just kicked off. Is it necessary? Will it change how menstruation is perceived in Poland? How and when to talk about menstruation so that no one feels embarrassed about it?

These are the questions we asked Iwona Firmanty, a psychologist, business coach and owner of Human Skills, a training firm, and the project Businesswoman’s Success (Sukces Kobiety Biznesu).

Agnieszka Jarosz: Do you think that women’s professional life, with childbearing, menstruation and menopause, is more difficult than men’s? Statistics reveal that gender discrimination is unfortunately still going strong.

Iwona Firmanty: Let’s not get crazy about statistics. There will always be some kind of injustice and discrimination in the world and in the country, whether in the treatment of women or men. Based on gender, race, age. We need to know one thing: we cannot change everything in the world with our own hands, but we should focus on what we can influence.

If women in a company feel that they are being treated discriminatorily, if only because of their gender or the fact that they are mothers and are returning after maternity leave or are menstruating or menopausal, then they need to think about whether this is the right company they still want to work for or whether this is an individual case or whether this is the work organisation culture.

This is where statistics will not help us. The key is that each one of us is the author of our own life. Certainly, it is easier for one and harder for the other, because we as women did not have an equal start, but each of us has to make some decisions on our own.

If statistics told us that pink jumpers were the most popular this season, then each of us would have to answer the question: do I want to wear it just like loads of others or will I resist?

If we are talking about girls who come from larger towns and cities, it is a bit easier for them to do a background check on the workplace. It is obviously harder for women in very small localities, but the pandemic world has brought us geolocalisation, which means, for instance, the possibility of working remotely.

So if a woman feels she is being treated in a blatantly discriminatory way in her workplace, and yet chooses to stay, this is her conscious decision, however uncomfortable, unpleasant or vexatious it may be.

Although other people do often influence what happens around us, at the end of the day, we can each decide for ourselves what we want to put on our plate, and we can each decide how we are treated by those around us.

You head the project Businesswoman’s Success and the firm Human Skills, engaged in trainings to empower women in business. Have you met any employers who support women during menstruation?

At many of the companies I have had the pleasure of working with, menstruating people can indeed feel that they are being taken care of. There are baskets with tampons and pads in the workplaces and toilets are fully adapted to their needs. HR departments have properly delegated people whose job it is to support menstruating people.

Such delegates normally are in possession of a first aid kit with pain relief medications. However, if a menstruating person needs sufficiently strong tablets because of severe pains, then it is the responsibility of the HR person to provide support and even inform the manager of the need to go to the pharmacy.

In my experience, there are men who are as aware as they can be about the needs and capabilities of menstruating people. Apparently, a woman during premenstrual tension can be more effective and is able to set stronger boundaries. And many a time they can appreciate that.

But I have also heard comments that menstruating ladies use their natural cycle to amplify the moment, claiming to be in pain everywhere and to be “dying” because they cannot cope anymore. They use their condition to manipulate and seek attention. It is then not so nice anymore as it is simply tiring for other colleagues.

What changes in the workplace could help enhance the knowledge of menstrual health? And how to counter the taboo? Do we need education measures?

Through training sessions or meetings, me and my firm aim to make employers and employees aware that each of us came into the world from the womb of the mother, i.e. a woman who also had her period. This is a natural process. Yet, the body is still a taboo in Poland. Education is very much needed, of course, but it must start at a much earlier stage.

There is, incidentally, a moment known as potty training, when the child makes a transition from nappy to potty. This is the time when if the caregivers or parents negate what has been done by saying like: “yuck, this poo stinks”, it may be that later the child will be ashamed of anything they excrete from their body. In contrast, if we have a child who has a sense of acceptance and security, the child will be able to show everyone what they have pooped in the potty without embarrassment.

The next milestone is during the teenage years. This the time when leg hair starts to appear, breasts grow and hips become wider in girls, e.g. at the age of 11, 12 or 13, and they get their periods. If they have not received timely support and information at home that their body will change, they will seek support from their peers or the Internet instead of their parents. And later on, they may start to show certain behavioural patterns that may or may not be positive.

I once had such an exceptional case; a girl got her period. However, she did not want to tell anyone as she had never discussed menstruation with her parents before. So she hid the wrapped and used sanitary pad under her pillow. Meanwhile, her mother (a very talkative person, by the way) entered the room and found it. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is with some mums: they habitually visit their teenage kids’ rooms although under no circumstances should they do so. Teenagers have their secrets and stories that build their sense of security. A growing young person has to learn to handle the mess of their own. And they do not need a nosy parent to do it.

When the girl in question got back from school, she found all her mum’s friends in the room, who had already discussed her first period over coffee and, on top of that, euphorically congratulated her on becoming a woman. The teenage girl was in no way ready for that. Only after several psychological sessions did her mother realise that she had inadvertently done great harm to her daughter’s sexuality. We managed to put that relationship right. The mother showed respect for her child and explained her intentions; importantly, the honest communication and acceptance brought them closer together.

I have countless stories like this. These are the very things that cause us to hide our conditions in adulthood and bury tampons and pads somewhere deep at home and in the handbag. And to feel ashamed of it. There is a feeling of embarrassment instead of natural openness. And this just goes to show that menstruation is still an unexplored and not fully understood topic here in Poland. Fortunately, we are learning and realising that our body is an ingenious creation, communicating to us many vital needs.

What would need to be done to ensure that menstruating people do not hide their condition and that they are not ashamed of their periods and feel comfortable in the workplace during this time?

The key is to provide acceptance, a sense of security and the remedies needed, if possible. Another key is to appoint an appropriate section or a designated official that could be approached to talk about such matters comfortably and with respect. It is important to appoint such people that will support menstruating people and will not be surprised when someone asks for help.

Dedicated storage boxes in the company, replenished monthly by the employer with hygiene materials in different sizes, grades and types are also a good solution. This will make a woman feel at ease. As we have already mentioned, it is also important to keep ladies toilets clean, stocked and equipped as appropriate. This is how an employer should cater to those in need of understanding during their difficult days. This ensures that their entire workforce is equally committed and effective.

I work with different companies and it happens that in some of them women do not menstruate at all—for weeks, months or even years. Why? Because of the stress. Because the body thinks it is at war. All hormonal production is halted and she is in no way ready to become pregnant. Ovulation is absent, medical issues arise, endometriosis develops, the thyroid starts to fail and women have to undergo treatment to artificially induce a period. And to achieve this, they have to revive their bodies for a very long time.

And droves of women unable to get pregnant, which is also not spoken about, spend the huge amounts of money they earn in corporations to be treated in infertility clinics. The law provides for a government subsidy up to 40 years of age but not afterwards. Women who are more advanced in age have to pay the treatment costs themselves. And a single IVF treatment could cost as much as over PLN 20,000. Contrary to appearances, it is young ladies that need help most often. Even though they are go-getting, financially secure and professionally fulfilled, their biology then tells them: you did not take care of me!

So if a woman starts menstruating, she herself should have respect for her body. Because it gives her a beautiful signal that she can become a mother. It doesn’t matter if she wants a baby at the time or not yet, but the body is ready for it. So we should love everything that happens to us, even mood swings and feeling worse. It is all a prelude to the emergence of a new life.

Thus, it would be welcome if a woman going through the various stages of her professional development was also supported by the company, both in difficult times and in making her career visions a reality.

Someone may be caught short at work or forget to take sanitary items. Or miss the onset of their period. Until now, only a female colleague could help in such a case. Are menstrual hygiene materials bought by the employer and placed in a publicly accessible location a good solution?

A very good one. I have already mentioned how good it is for the company atmosphere.

I will refer here again, e.g. to the human resources departments. If they have conscious people, menstruation in the workplace is not a problem for anyone.

However, I have to criticise some menstruating people a bit. Having been to various companies, I notice that men’s toilets are definitely cleaner than women’s. And even if the latter are stocked up with various necessary sanitary materials, soaps, towels and even sanitary pad disposal bags, ladies often do not take care to dispose of used sanitary pads and tampons in a proper and discreet manner. Probably all of us have seen bins full of organic sights. For it turns out that not all ladies can wrap a used sanitary pad in the wrapper of a newly opened one, so education is needed even in this area. And yet it would only take seconds to change that.

In my opinion, there should be clear instructions in toilets: what state to leave the toilet in, when and what to use, how often to take sanitary items so that there would be no absurd situations of ladies stocking up on company sanitary pads for the whole family.

Do you feel that Polish employers should take a closer look at menstrual health and talk about it in their workplaces?

By all means. My experience over the years allows me to conclude that a lack of stigma in the work team, a move away from stereotypes and naturalness in communication all build the success of a company. However, let us remember that this is first and foremost a workplace.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the policies and clear instructions I mentioned before are necessary. It is a matter of ensuring that a well-started campaign to support menstruating people does not go awry, that is, that the opportunities offered by the employer are not abruptly exploited. Everything should be implemented in moderation and according to needs, and then the comfort of the workplace will become a pride of the place.