Employers Need to Accept That Women Have Periods

July 14th 2017

Katelyn Harrop

A viral post detailing an HR department’s alleged response to an employee's menstruation has people talking about expectations for women in the workplace.

In a post originally published anonymously on the British parenting site, Mumsnet, a user named "Snuffalo" detailed her account of an interaction with a supervisor—and, subsequently, the human resources department—after she placed a hot water bottle on her lap to combat menstrual cramps.

“I fill the hot water bottle, nestle it in my lap, and I’m back to work. My sort-of-supervisor* we’ll call Guy comes over to talk to me about something, notices the hot water bottle, says ‘there’s no way you’re cold today, are you?'" she wrote. “I say ‘um, no, just for the pain relief.' He looks confused and then literally horrified and then he walks away.”

According to the post, the employee then received a message from her company’s remote human resources department, asking if everything was alright and noting that her supervisor said she was, “not well and should go home.”

“[T]en more minutes later, the HR Director calls me and asks me if I can find a meeting room, which I do. She then tells me that I shouldn’t disclose my medical problems to anyone who isn’t part of HR as it can make them uncomfortable,” the post claimed. “ I’m literally shocked, I explain exactly what happened, she says ‘yes I understand, if you’re so unwell you need a hot water bottle you should be home, Guy is extremely uncomfortable and it’s unprofessional.’”

The Mumsnet story, received over 500 responses after it was shared on Twitter. Many of those responses were women telling similar stories of unfair responses to menstruation in an office setting, highlighting that this one woman’s story points to a far more common problem.

"She then tells me that I shouldn't disclose my medical problems to anyone who isn't a part of HR as it makes them uncomfortable."

According to a survey conducted by popular period-tracking app Clue, 18 percent of U.S. respondents reported missing school, work or another event because they were afraid someone would find out they were on their period. That number jumps to 20 percent in the U.K., and 25 percent in Brazil and Australia.

“It speaks volumes and is a sad indictment of period stigma,” Emilie, who shared the anonymous woman's story in a viral Twitter post, told ATTN:. “It was an example of the everyday sexism that women have to navigate through and manage; her time was taken up with placating him and reassuring HR that she was capable which is emotional labor she shouldn't have to perform.”

More than a quarter of the global population is reproductive-age women who menstruate for an average of 3,000 days in a lifetime. Still, the topic remains highly taboo, with open workplace conversations few and far between.

But a growing number of employers are addressing menstruation in the workplace with special leave policies that allow women to take time off while menstruating. In Japan, that's by law, as businesses are required to provide employees time off for their period—though many decline to take it, The Guardian reported, out of fear of being perceived as weak. In the private sector, British company Coexist became the country’s first to offer a period-leave policy last year.  

“It’s not just about taking time off if you feel unwell but about empowering people to be their optimum selves,” Coexist director Bex Baxter told The Guardian. "If you work with your natural rhythms, your creativity and intelligence is more fulfilled. And that’s got to be good for business.”

While some women applaud these policies for accommodating women's health, others believe menstruation-specific policies could be discriminatory or play into harmful stereotypes. “I applaud what I understand to be the intent of the law, which is trying to ensure that women’s needs are addressed and taken into account in the workplace," Emily Martin, vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, said in an interview with Glamour. But, she added, "I’m afraid that that kind of gender-specific rule has the potential to backfire and lead to discrimination."

Better workplace policies are a good thing, but as Martin suggests: society needs to change too.