This week, MP Danielle Rowley mentioned that she was on her period during a debate in the House of Commons on the cost of menstrual products. Shortly afterwards, it was breaking news all over the UK, with many people debating not only the issue Rowley was raising, but also whether or not it was appropriate, brave or simply gross that she had mentioned her period.
As I waded through the waves of judgement, ignorance and support being directed at Rowley, I started to feel increasingly angry at the way women are expected to draw a veil of silence over their periods at work. Whether we excuse it as a way to avoid us seeming weaker or physically unfit in comparison to male colleague, what lies at the root of our silence is male comfort. Periods aren’t part of cis male experience, so we don’t acknowledge them in masculine gendered spaces of which the workplace, despite all of our best efforts, remains one.
And so, today we’re going to talk about what it’s like to have your period at work, and why talking about this experience has a role to play in reclaiming the workplace as a space for all genders.
Here’s my story.
I’m a cis woman. I menstruate. For most of my teens and 20s I used hormonal birth control and hardly even noticed when I was on my period, but since 2013 I’ve used a copper coil and one of its side effects is heavier than usual periods. Picture me, one morning in 2015, as I woke up from a night of interrupted sleep, did an awkward backwards jerk out of bed to avoid touching the bedclothes and hobbled to the bathroom with blood streaming down my legs. As my male partner slept undisturbed, I cleaned myself up, cleaned the bathroom up, cleaned the drips along the way up, got dressed for work and rushed to catch my last viable bus. The bus stop was already in sight when I realised that – thanks to the unpleasant experience that is flooding – my mooncup was full and about to overflow. I had a choice. I remember pausing on the kerb, asking myself whether it was better to get the bus and risk blood running down my legs for the next 45 minutes in order to arrive at work on time, or to go home and empty my cup. On the basis that I worked in an office where arriving at 9.01 was a disciplinary offense, I got on the bus and stood with my thighs clenched for 45 minutes and waddled to my office drenched in humiliation and sticky blood. I got through the door at 8.57 and because it was not acceptable to be anywhere in the building but at your desk at 9am, I had to sit awkwardly and uncomfortably at my desk, log on and wait until 9.20 to go and clean up. By which I mean emptying my cup, wiping away as much blood as possible and wadding my underwear with toilet paper until lunchtime when I could go and buy emergency underwear, painkillers and wet wipes.
The worst thing about this story is that the person I was working for was also a cis woman. I should have been able to call her and explain that I was having menstrual issues, catch a later bus and arrive at 9.30 with no judgement. The fact that I couldn’t do that without being screamed at, made to feel inadequate and potentially being sacked, is something we should all be angry about. Even more enraging is the fact that all of us – men and women alike – treat work as an ideologically male space where female experience doesn’t have a right to exist.
Women shouldn’t have to work in an explicitly male space
Because we don’t talk about periods, we allow men forget they happen and effectively excuse them from having to think about the effect they have on us. Instead, they think about the effect periods have on them.
Now, I am very aware that there are lots of feminist men out there and I am proud of them. And there are also a lot of men out there who consider themselves quite ‘woke’ when it comes to periods. They proudly announce that they are OK with buying tampons and pads for the women in their lives. And should a woman turn down sex because she’s on her period, they will cheerfully say “Oh, I don’t mind period sex. We’ll put a towel down.” Which is my personal favourite because it completely ignores that the woman might, you know, be in pain or discomfort and not want anyone poking around between her legs. Oh, no, the conversation is entirely about whether or not the man is grossed out by blood.
Bringing this back from bedroom to boardroom, because men dominate the workplace, we end up working in spaces that don’t acknowledge – let alone accommodate – our experience. To give you some examples of what this means, in the past, I worked in an office where, despite the fact that 20-30 women were on site on any given day, no-one thought the sanitary bins needed emptying more than once a month. I’ve also worked in an office where the cubicles were so small that changing tampons or menstrual cups required more contortion than my weekly yoga class.
Even worse, this marginalisation of women is happening despite the fact that we are not a minority. We are half the population. So if our experiences can be marginalised in this way, then true minorities won’t even get a look in. If we allow straight cis men, most of whom live with a woman who menstruates, to be so grossed out by our bodies that they can’t even stomach us talking about our periods, how can we expect them to factor the experience of other less populous gender groups into their headpsace? We can’t. And as women, I think we have a responsibility to support other marginalised groups by channelling the strength of our numbers and pushing hard on this issue.
Our silence on this issue jeopardises equality for everyone
Let’s go back to Danielle Rowley telling the Commons she’s on her period this week and raising the issue of period poverty. The best the Tories could do was say they will be axing VAT on menstrual products post-Brexit, bring the annual cost of menstruating down to £400. And that’s assuming the price doesn’t go up by 20% after we’ve waved goodbye to the customs union. So, that’s £500 a year for the privilege of being a woman, until 2019 when depending on David Davis’s negotiating powers it may go down to £400.
Hang on a minute. We can all get condoms for free, because they go on a penis and our government thinks contraception and sexual health are important. So…why doesn’t the same go for menstrual products and womens’ health? I’ll tell you why: because no-one gives a shit. When Rowley spoke, the House was nearly empty. I could only see two men, both of whom looked as though they’d fallen asleep on the benches and were attending by mistake.
What this tells is that we can’t continue relying on men to adapt their spaces for us. The past few decades have shown that this is a process which is inadequate and too slow. We need to reclaim these spaces immediately, not only for ourselves, but for all gender groups.