Code Red! Menstruating Employees, Policies, and Etiquettes
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
The article aims at dismantling notions of purity, shame and concealment attached to the concept of Menstruation by weaving it around several pre-existing policies for Menstrual Health. It throws light on the need for Menstruation to be seen as a public and occupational health concern. By doing so, the text focuses on the self-policing and objectification women put themselves through, unwittingly, to maintain a menstrual etiquette in the workspace.
Period-Friendly Workplace; Myth or Reality for Some?
Picture this. It's a typical workday; you're going about carrying your usual tasks. Overburdened with work, stressed about the upcoming meeting, and to top it all off, you're on your period. To deal with the pain and reduce one aspect of your tension, you resort to using a hot-water bag. Seeing this, a male co-worker of yours is puzzled, intrigued, even.
Upon knowing you’re using it to subside your menstrual cramps, he’s aghast. Soon after, you’re hauled to HR Department, reprimanded for making a colleague 'uncomfortable' by bringing your 'lady problem’ into the workspace (Hills, 2017). The thought of the above leaves you furious, right? It did for me, too, more so when I realized it was not a mere story but rather an actual incident that took place.
In the summer of 2017, a female employee of a UK firm was held up by her office staff for 'revealing' her Menstruation; because they believed, in doing so, she created an atmosphere of disgust in the office-space! (Mumsnet, 2017)
Anecdotes such as these make us wonder and ponder over the dire need to have period-friendly workspaces; built on humanistic values for the well-being of menstruating employees, aimed at encouraging support rather than suppressing Menstruation (Owen, 2018).
Menstruating Employees carry out several forms of labour while at work. Apart from the usual office workload, while menstruating, employees bear a great deal of Emotional Labour, Physical Labour, and Mental Labour. They are required to hide their suffering or pain and expected to keep their menses a secret. The shame and embarrassment make it more challenging for a menstruating individual to work comfortably at the workplace.
The physical symptoms associated with Menstruation are not only limited to painful menstrual cramps, bloating, headaches, and nausea. A menstruator with menstrual, premenstrual and reproductive disorders like Abnormal Uterine Bleeding (AUB), Intermenstrual Bleeding Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), Endometriosis, and Uterine Fibroids can suffer from a wide variety of symptoms.
The theory of 'Blood Work' by Sang et al (2021) explains the trials and tribulations of menstruating employees. Blood work talks about menstrual aspects at the workplace, which involves ‘managing the leaky, messy, painful body; managing access to facilities; managing stigma, and managing workload.' Having to put up a constant façade at all times, employees face a dissonance with their true emotions and physical needs.
Required to keep up with gender-based expectations and cultural norms, Menstruation in employees is seen as the antithesis of the feminine, sexualized, desired body (Berg & Coutts, 1994; Sang et al, 2021). Adhering to the cultural code of Menstruation (Acker, 2020), employees tend to follow the male body norm in the workplace, where menstruating folk are seen as aberrations carrying out the various labour forms, physical, mental, emotional, menstruating employees fall prey to the oppressive, hetero-patriarchal capitalist structure (Weeks, 2017).
Menstruators at the workplace face stigmatization and oppression. In failing to recognize and cater to their needs, they often suffer hindrances in their work performance. Instead of being honed for their work skills and productivity, their periods reduce them to mere menstruating bodies.
Drawing from Foucault's concept of 'self-policing (Foucault, 1977), one can better understand why women maintain menstrual etiquettes in the workplace. To avoid being known for their biological 'monstrosities', by being harassed for their periods, menstruating folk regulate, conceal and manage their Menstruation discreetly to protect others from the 'threat' menses bring with them it.
In a bid to protect and uphold the cultured, sanitized feminine ideals (Roberts et al, 2002), certain essentialist and regressive notions are reified through the same policies put in place to 'empower' individuals. These policies lead to women objectifying their own selves. By looking at themselves through the oppressive male gaze, they participate in their own dehumanization and objectification by internalizing what these orthodox policies convey. (Grose & Grabe, 2014)
Looking at Zambia's policy for menstrual leave, we realize how women are made to fit into specific categories. Menstrual leave is granted once a month in Zambia and is termed 'Mother's Day,' stressing women's potential of becoming mothers (Worley, 2017). Such a policy patronizes women by solely reducing them to their reproductive capabilities. As rightfully put forward by Roberts et al, 2002; ‘reproductive functions become an emblem of women’s appropriate sphere, as caregivers - but also of their supposed inferiority.’ Unconcealed Menstruation, therefore, comes across as ‘unfeminine' and ‘socially unacceptable' (Levitt & Tavlaris, 2020), with women who reveal their menses called out for being less sexually desirable, more impure and neurotic.
Sites of Discipline
Concealing Menstruation, as mentioned above, creates disembodied and self-silenced individuals (Roberts, 2004). Their bodies become sites of exploitation and surveillance. Menstruating Employees in specific companies, for this reason, enjoy no agency of freedom. Their ‘unspeakable womanhood' (Ussher et al, 2017) makes them subjects of degradation. The practice of benevolent sexism is rampant in workplaces. It does not occur blatantly, but rather covertly, by assigning traditional ideologies to genders, it reinforces stereotypes and increases chances of discrimination.
In seeing Menstruation as a ‘recurring affirmation of womanhood,' (Broks-Gunn & Ruble, 1980), emphasis is laid on female fragility and incompetence, furthering gendered power dynamics. Under the banner of 'female empowerment and 'reproductive rights,' specific policies and campaigns seek to make women's roles as caregivers elemental.
One such example emerges from a Norwegian firm. Women workers here must wear 'red' bands during their 'time of the month' (Black, 2010). This branding is needed, argues the owner, to know the reason for their frequent bathroom visits and monitor their breaks. In a similar light, German supermarket chain Lidl had been accused of snooping on their employees by keeping a tab on their menstrual cycles (Connolly, 2008). While their menstruating employees were initially not allowed to use the bathroom during office hours, the company soon introduced the system of wearing headbands during their periods to ‘inform’ the owners of their reasons for using the washroom.
Such regressive practices seek to control women's bodily integrity and privacy. Workspaces create an unfriendly period culture, hoping to 'discipline' and yield power over the menstruating body by restricting their movement.
Image Source: Action Aid, U.K. [c]
Menstrual Health Policies
While some policies further relegate women to the domestic sphere, certain companies have made considerable efforts to break away from the menstrual stigma. By locating and recognizing menstrual health management as a collective responsibility, they have attempted to alleviate pressure and make life easier for menstruating individuals at work. Looking at 'period policies,' one further understands how essential it is not to homogenize experiences of menstruating employees but recognize all experiences as necessary and valuable. There are a few companies that have succeeded in doing so.
CoExist, a social enterprise company in Bristol, became the first of its kind in the United Kingdom to create a 'Period Policy' in 2016. Using a humanistic management approach (Owen, 2018), CoExist provided a day's paid leave or a quiet place away from the main office for their menstruating employees to rest. These 'well-being rooms' emphasized individuals' health during work hours, too (Quarshie, 2017).
WhoCares? a firm in Scotland tackling Period Poverty, provided access to menstrual products in the office washrooms. Subsequently, Scotland became the first country to offer free period products in schools, colleges and government offices (Diamond, 2020). Victorian Women's Trust (Melican & Mountford, 2017), a women's advocacy agency based in Australia, followed a similar trajectory; by providing their employees with a variety of options; paid menstrual leave, work from home, resting in the office. Additionally, they offered leave and relief for their menopausal employees as well.
Image Source: ACEVO.Org.UK.
Moving closer home, several firms have attempted to break away from traditional binds and overcome taboos. CultureMachine, a digital media firm in Mumbai, came up with the concept of 'First Day of Period Leave' in 2017, a much celebrated and greatly anticipated move. Taking inspiration from them, several companies followed suit. Gozoop, a digital communications agency, provided menstruating employees to work from home for one day per month.
Mathrubhumi, a media group in Kerala, allows its employees to take medical leave for a day on their periods. Similarly, Zomato announced ten days of paid leave for menstruating employees throughout the year (Ungender, 2020). Despite the menstrual policies in place, some employees refuse to take leaves due to fear of being discriminated against or harassed. A fear of hindering their career progression or being paid less overcomes the employees, while their menstrual health takes a backseat.
In several countries, regardless of the policies, Menstruation is seen as monstrous, unfeminine, polluted, dangerous, and a threat to men's power. Certain menstronormativities (Delaney et al. 1988; Persdotter, 2020) are put in place to contain menses. These strict codes are for menstruating individuals to adhere to.
Taboos, stigmas, accepted behavioural patterns play out in the workplace as well. Androcentric norms stigmatize and govern the menstruating body through a process of manipulation. Cultural codes are emphasized to control, eliminate and hide their stigmatized marks (Chrisler, 2011).
Therefore, menstruating at work constantly infuses all sorts of fear in employees; a fear of Menstruation for men and a self-induced, internalized fear of their menstruating bodies in women (Delaney et al, 1988).
Where Do We Go from Here?
Looking at Menstrual Health Policies through a critical lens, one realizes the need for gynocentric thought and approaches in formulating these policies. There is a significant lack of research on Menstruation at the Workplace and the debilitating effects of concealing menses on individuals' psychological and biological health (Sang et al, 2021).
While several companies across the globe have managed to provide a basic outline for menstruating employees, it certainly does not end here. Bringing an end to sexist attitudes, the culture of concealment (Houppert, 1999; Wood, 2020), and objectify the menstruating body. It can be achieved by fostering and normalizing discussions on Menstrual Health in the workplace. If employees are assured support and face lesser burden through their work, workplace culture will go through tremendous change.
By challenging heteropatriarchal capitalism and dismantling menstrual stigma both within and outside the workplace (Levitt & Tavlaris, 2020), one can attempt to deconstruct gendered-inequalities at work and provide a safer space for menstruating employees, with access to adequate facilities and resources, leading to a menstruation-discrimination free workplace. To avoid diminishing female-labour participation in the workplace and feminising cheap labour (Wharton, 2009), workplaces must ensure responsibility for menstruating employees.
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