I remember when I was just starting my first job during my University summer leave. I felt an array of emotions: excitement, maturity, and a sense of achievement and independence. On enrolment, running through company policies on illness and sick leave seemed simple enough to comprehend, until their final note: ‘Oh, and one more thing…’ my then-manager added, ‘menstrual pain is NOT an acceptable excuse to take time off work’.
Suddenly a cloud of fear dawned over me. I found myself desperately totting up when my next period was due and construing believable, yet ‘acceptable’ excuses to give, just in case my work shift and menstruation were to clash.
This attitude towards menstrual pain communicated to me two things:
- Female-specific health issues are not taken seriously enough.
- Menstruation is sometimes viewed as an ‘excuse’ that is exploited by women.
Women and girls are consistently taught to suffer in silence.
It’s learning the secret ‘girl-code’ of understanding these issues and discomforts of one another; from secretly exchanging sanitary products like a drug dealer and a fellow client, to silently grimacing at another girl when you’ve finally understood the cause of her keeling back and forth.
It’s attracting the looks of horror and disgust from boys at their overhearing the mentioning of your period, as they then proceed back to watching ‘13 Goriest Game of Thrones Deaths’ on Youtube.
It’s feeling enough courage to ask your teacher for the lesson’s work to take home because you’re in too much pain to continue being in school, to be responded to with a grimace of discomfort at the explicit mention of it, and then a roll of his eyes.
From the moment a girl starts menstruating, her surroundings teach her to silently deal with any pain that accompanies it. And when it is too much for a girl to bear, she learns that it is far safer to invent a lie to mask the true cause of her suffering.
If this is the reality of a young woman’s beginning, is it therefore so difficult to see why women’s issues are so commonly ignored and dismissed in the working world?
We need to start addressing the reality of severe menstrual pain.
When I was once finally granted permission (albeit grudgingly and suspiciously) to leave school during an intensely painful episode, I could barely make it home (it was only over the road). Before I had reached my door, I had already fainted and thrown up.
I am not anaemic, so the loss of blood was never something for me to worry about. It was the pain alone that caused the dizziness, fainting, sickness and splitting headaches that very often accompanied my monthly cycle. As somebody who feared and suffered these brutal symptoms month after month, it infuriates me that in 2019, the issue is still met with ignorance and unjust suspicions that menstrual pain is used as a gendered ‘excuse’ to just laze at home for a day.
Nor am I just some rare case to be pitied. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, up to 20% of women suffer from menstrual pain severe enough to interfere with their daily demands and routines. While 10% of women will be victims to endometriosis – a condition which can cause intense pain on a more daily basis, alongside infertility. Once again, this female-specific health issue is often ignored and dismissed, resulting in an average of 7.5 years of being taken to diagnose (Endometriosis UK).
How do we tackle workplace prejudice against menstruation?
In countries such as Japan, Korea and some parts of China, a menstrual leave policy allows its female workers to take one paid day leave a month. This is a practise that attracts a very divided response: on the one hand, it recognises the severity of some women’s menstrual pain and gives them an accessible leave should they need it; on the other hand, it could lead to other sexist ideas such as women being less cost-effective as male workers and hence discrimination upon hiring and promotions.
Should women be granted a paid menstrual leave in the U.K.? No, not necessarily. I don’t believe we need individual policies to single out female workers. I do, however, believe that menstrual pain and other female health concerns should be fully accepted within a workplace’s illness and sick leave policy. We also need to be working together to reduce the many stigmas and silence that accompanies women’s health and menstruation – whether that be talking unapologetically and explicitly about these topics, educating ignorant people or opening up about personal experiences.
It’s time we stopped cowering under silence and lies of alternate illnesses to mask our fear of being seen as weak, incompetent and offensive.
Besides, since when was a nasty cold or fever more debilitating than the kind of pain some women face during menstruation?