Menstruation is a biological and natural phenomenon that is a lived reality for approximately half of the population. Yet, it is still considered a private thing that you had better not talk about – just in case. A study ordered by the American Thinx brand found that 58 percent of women feel ashamed during 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, the Kulczyk Foundation found that 17 percent of women in Poland missed work or school due to menstruation.
Like an iceberg
Menstruation is still a taboo both at home and at the office. Public conversations about gender equality are plentiful but they usually refer to the wage gap or the presence of women on boards. Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. What lurks underwater is a disrespect for far more basic rights of women. And you cannot avoid collision if you don’t see the obstacle in your way.
It all boils down to the biological determinants of gender. Some of them, such as pregnancy, are not only socially but also legally recognised. Others, such as menstruation, are not. And these topics are surprisingly close to each other. The elephant in the room in this case is women’s health and rights, namely inalienable human rights.
One taboo – and an avalanche of consequences
As long as menstruation remains an embarrassing topic, women will continue to experience the stress associated with it. As long as it is considered a ‘women’s issue’, it will affect opinions on women’s performance, usefulness… or even competence. Menstruation impacts the attendance of girls at school and women at work – but not because ‘that’s how things naturally work’. The needs associated with it are simply not recognised.
‘We are only starting the journey to make us realise that instilling a sense of shame or fear in a half of the society carries enormous negative social consequences. And this is because of a process that is after all, the most natural thing for women. Without this change there would be no life, there would be no us’, says Dominika Kulczyk, President of the Kulczyk Foundation.
First of all, a space needs to be created where talking about menstruation is comfortable. Second, we need simple solutions such as easy access to restrooms, sanitary pads or tampons. Especially given that up to a half of the employees at almost every company do menstruate.
Ruthless work environment
According to the Kulczyk Foundation’s report, menstruating women experience at least two types of problems at work. The first problem is the need to perform duties in onerous and uncomfortable conditions, often with limited access to restrooms. The second one is discrimination. Women, considered as less efficient and not fully reliable, do not get the most interesting or prestigious projects, for instance. Menstruation becomes an obstacle to gaining equal opportunities for professional growth.
Women are a major part of the labour market, so it would be a mistake to think that work life and menstruation are unrelated. At the same time, jobs used to be (and often still are) occupied exclusively by men. This is why most of them are designed to meet the needs of only one of the sexes.
For a start, just one change at the company is sufficient to send a clear message: our company knows that women menstruate, we understand this and we want to make their lives easier. Let’s start by providing corporate restrooms with sanitary pads and tampons, just like they are provided with toilet paper or paper towels. This has both a practical dimension (since it makes life easier) and a symbolic one (by breaking the taboo). If the organisation has money to buy coffee or fruit, there should also be money available for such basic things as menstrual products.
A foot in the door
We are starting to see solutions to this problem. Achieving changes in this area are the foundation of the ‘Career Cycle’. It is a nationwide programme launched today by a large group of employers. The initiative is authored by the Kulczyk Foundation, the Polish Business Roundtable, the Employers of Poland, Okresowa Koalicja [Period Coalition] and Sukces Pisany Szminką [Success Written in Lipstick]. They are supported by UN Global Compact Network Poland and Omni Calculator, and the media patrons of the programme include Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, Wirtualna Polska and Money.pl.
‘The premises of the “Career Cycle” are simple. The aim of the programme is to help employers create friendly workplaces for all employees, regardless of their gender. Starting with the most mundane needs – such as the availability of hygiene products and restrooms – through building awareness of menstrual health to bringing companies closer to the topic of gender equality’, argues Wojciech Kostrzewa, President of the Polish Business Roundtable, a partner of the ‘Career Cycle’.
The initiators of the programme are straightforward: if we can talk about menstruation at work, we will be able to talk about it freely at home, at school and among each other. Great changes always start with a great idea. When it comes to menstruation, sometimes all it takes is to change your thinking to be more understanding of female students, female employees, female bosses. Closer to those who are close to us.
An accessible pad can do more for women’s comfort at work than the most expensive CSR strategy.
The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl on 14 January 2022