NB: This blog refers to menstruating cis-women but we want to acknowledge that not all women menstruate and this blog does not intend to exclude any gender or population to this conversation.
I worked for a large law firm in New Zealand. It was my first experience of working in an office - sitting at a computer, running around getting instructions and attending meetings all very bright, very busy, very bustling. Our office was open-plan, which had its ups and downs. There was room for collaboration (and socialising to break up the day), but for some, in some particular moments, it could also feel exposed. For example, when you needed a wheat-bag or hot-water bottle across your middle to dull cramps, when you needed to reach into your bag before going to the bathroom, or worse you’d just been but needed to go straight back again after getting a tampon. For a week each month it was like playing a game of hide and sneak, hiding the wheat bags under my desk and quickly stuffing tampons up my sleeve (and if it’s a short sleeves day, argh, you cup it in your hand and hope no one will stop you on the short 8 metre sprint back to the bathroom).
This behaviour comes from the embarrassment and shame around cis-women’s health and in particular menstruation. I learnt this for the first time at school when boys would leave the room before the girls learnt about it. Even as I grew up and decided I would not be embarrassed about my body, I found it was easier said than done and more easily done outside of the workplace where there is still visible difference in the success and belonging of cis-men and cis-women.
Although more cis-women graduate with law degrees now that has not been reflected in senior positions. At a seminar, I heard from senior cis-women in the profession that the conversation about gender equality in senior roles has been happening since at least the 70s and often to a response that said “when women are good enough they will make it into those positions”. To play the game, cis-women trying to be ‘good enough’ have to hide that which makes them different from their male colleagues.
We don’t choose to get periods, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes physically painful and on top of that it is seen as weakness or gross. It’s clear in the language and jokes we still use - oh she’s angry, must be that time of the month.
Unlearning the embarrassment and shame is not easy. Here are some of the things that made it easier: Spinoff articles about periods, t-shirts with “period” written across the front, talking about the tax on sanitary items and having periods talked about in public and not just by cis-women. Then I heard about Dignity and their mission to remove this shame in workplaces I was blown away by their work. I thought that if I could get Dignity at my workplace that would remove some of the hide and sneak and take that shame out of my work life - remove one hurdle.
I talked to our diversity committee and got good support behind the scenes. One day a jar of sanitary items “for emergency use” turned up. A great first step, but then it occurred to me that the clandestine approach was dealing only with a symptom - yes I wouldn’t have to sneak back to my desk for a tampon - but it was still a taboo topic. So I started talking about Dignity with anyone I could - junior, senior, associates, employees of all genders - it was a conversation that started about giving and morphed into sanitary products and period poverty - for some it was the first time they heard about issues around periods - prohibitive costs, difficulty accessing sanitary products, and the shame and stress that cis-women experience monthly. So we started the process to get Dignity on board - to benefit the cis-women in the office who needed those products and benefit students around NZ, who could be the next lawyers.
Unlearning is a slow process but with bringing Dignity into the office there was another thing that helped - my colleagues and I could talk about our experiences and stress openly and support each other knowing that our workplace had stepped up to remove some of that stress and help increase access sanitary products in NZ.
The tide is turning and I think we are recognising that cis-women are and have always been “good enough” but face extra hurdles to be present and compete in environments that weren’t created with cis-women in mind - remove those hurdles and lets see what we can achieve.