By Jennifer Weiss-Wolf published
Women make up 51 percent of all American professionals, meaning those of us who bleed on the job once a month are the rule—not the exception. Yet shockingly, a woman in Georgia was recently fired from her job at a 911 call center allegedly for that very thing. The actionable offense? A heavy flow day during which she stained her office chair, she says. Seriously. The American Civil Liberties Union is now fighting for her in federal court, arguing that "it's a case of essentially being penalized while female" and calling it the “very essence of sex discrimination.”
To be sure, managing menstruation is but a small slice of the challenges working women face. Overall, so the statistic goes, women typically still earn 80 cents for every dollar a white man makes; the gap is even greater for women of color, with black women at 63 cents and Latinas at 54. Our struggles are real—from inadequate family leave policy and the pernicious prevalence of sexual harassment to glass ceilings, sticky floors, and everything in between.
But making periods a more open, integral part of office culture would not only improve working conditions for many, but also help advance the global cause of de-stigmatizing menstruation for all. Forget about tiptoeing to the restroom with a tampon discreetly tucked up a sleeve—employers should embrace periods for what they are: situation normal. Here, three ways they could do just that:
Tampons and pads should be available for free in employee restrooms—as ubiquitous as the toilet paper and hand soap that are already required to be provided. It's basic fairness. And a best business practice, too; a simple way to maximize workplace attendance and productivity.
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Especially for low-wage workers, but also for those who are well-compensated (meaning, at a minimum, having the spare change on hand to buy a tampon and the ability to punch off the clock to freely take a bathroom break), the added bit of security that comes with a reliable product stash goes a long way. Who among us hasn't been caught off guard by an unexpected period?
Thanks to Alyssa Mastromonaco, former deputy chief of staff for operations to President Obama, the White House is one such employer that got the memo. In her book, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, Mastromonaco shares how she spearheaded the installation of the first-ever tampon dispenser in the West Wing facilities. “If we were truly serious about running a diverse operation and bringing more women into politics, we should give the office a basic level of comfort for them,” she writes. “It would be better than menstruating all over the Oval.” (I wonder if President Trump has left the dispenser intact...and I feel for any staffer of his who unexpectedly finds “blood coming out of her wherever.”)
I can hear the anti-feminists sniggering as I type this, but the policy has precedent: A decade ago, Nike became the first global brand to officially include paid menstrual leave in its code of conduct. But Japan can lay claim to the inaugural nationwide policy allowing for days off explicitly on account of menstruation: under its 1947 Labor Standards Law, women are allowed seirikyuuka (“physiological leave”) for painful periods. Over the years, several other Asian countries—South Korea (2001), Indonesia (2003), Taiwan (2014), and even parts of China (the Anhui, Shanxi, and Hebei provinces)—have followed Japan’s lead. Earlier this year, Zambia passed a law requiring a day of menstrual leave per month, known as "Mother's Day." And a bill was presented in the Italian Parliament last spring that would mandate companies grant up to three days of menstrual leave each month.
The issue stirs fierce debate. Does a formal leave policy improve women’s opportunities to compete professionally and provide needed job security, much as mandated family leave is designed to do? Or does it imply impairment—that women are unfit to lead due to a built-in, biological monthly lapse in judgment—and, in turn, justify discrimination? In practice, the success of the laws vary: some have unwieldy, even humiliating medical requirements; and most tend to be under-utilized for fear of backlash.
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No doubt, the notion that menstruation makes women less competent workers should be firmly rejected and shut down. We can educate how and why it is that periods are debilitating for many (up to one in four women experience severe periods, particularly those with conditions like uterine fibroids and endometriosis)—and still stand behind the assertion that this is not a sign of weakness. And we must simultaneously keep up the drumbeat that the overall ability to manage menstruation is part of having a healthy, high-performing workforce.
And then there is the radically holistic model known as the Red School Movement, a sort of menstrual utopia. Its founder, the Australian psychotherapist and educator Alexandra Pope, is at the fore of the concept called “menstruality”—a program designed to take business to a whole new lunar level by treating the monthly cycle as a force to be leveraged and harnessed. Just imagine being able to potentially align key assignments around those days we’re biologically primed for heightened creativity or productivity (or to steer clear of the crankiest, crampiest ones). She advises this will result in greater effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction—for both men and women.
It's amazing to imagine a workplace where we all have the freedom to embrace, and then extol, the sheer power of our bodies.
Of course, there are practical challenges: a deadline is a deadline, bloating be damned. And there are risks too. In the U.S., the very act of sharing information about the timing of or reactions to one’s own menstrual cycle could amount to privacy intrusions that run afoul of key anti-discrimination measures, especially with regard to conditions including pregnancy and mental health. That would be a dangerous step backward. But, at the same time, it's also amazing to imagine a workplace where we all have the freedom to embrace, and then extol, the sheer power of our bodies.
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With so much progress over the past few years in making periods public, even political—from the passage of laws to eliminate the “tampon tax” and to make menstrual products freely available in schools and shelters—menstrual equity in the workplace is the logical next frontier.
It's a cause that enjoys rare bipartisan support, no small achievement in today's polarized times. For example, a new rule ensuring maxi pads are available to federal inmates was announced this summer by the Bureau of Prisons—part of the U.S. Department for Justice, led by conservative stalwart and Trump-appointee Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That is progress in which we should revel, and utilize to demand further menstrual policy advances.
For now, though, at the very least we deserve fairly-stocked restrooms—coupled with an assurance that our bodies' natural functions will not be cause for bias or termination, and won't be held against us while we’re on the clock.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the cofounder of Period Equity, a national law and policy organization dedicated to menstrual access, affordability, and safety, and the author of the new book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the cofounder of Period Equity and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.
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