Last month I had to leave work in the middle of the day. I was in a great deal of pain from my period, a problem I have had for several years. Sometimes I can manage it with painkillers, but not always. Even when I can cope with the pain, my periods affect my sleep, and make me slower and less productive. When my (female) boss saw how unwell I was, she kindly suggested I go home. I told her the next day I must be coming down with a cold. I’ve been thinking, why didn’t I just say “I have bad period pains”? I know it’s because I don’t want to be seen as weak and I don’t want to play into stereotypes that women can’t work or have important jobs because of their periods. That said, I worry about using a sick day or two every month. What are my rights in this area regarding sick leave? Should I speak up next time? Am I letting the side down by not coming out and being honest about my period?
Anon. The answer from Poppy Noor:
Something happens to you once a month that is painful and out of your control. You are not alone. Last year, YouGov asked 538 menstruators about their experiences of period pain in the workplace; 57% said it had affected their work. And yet, you feel you will be seen as weak or unreliable if you tell someone about it. Your fears aren’t unfounded: a number of studies show that women’s pain is routinely dismissed by health professionals, especially when it comes to gynaecological issues. And other women seem to share your fear. YouGov found that only 27% of women affected by period pains told their boss and many of them (33%) pretended, as you did, that it was something else affecting their work.
The question about your rights is a tricky one. You are entitled to statutory sick leave, and you could get a note from your doctor explaining that you are affected by serious pain for a day or two each month. But just because you are entitled to something doesn’t mean your boss won’t judge you: if people were given what they were entitled to without sexist ramifications, I suspect more women would be paid equally to men; wouldn’t get sacked for having children; and would be paid the same as their partners after returning to work.
It is not your responsibility to rectify a world in which women can’t freely talk about periods for fear of shame or retribution. Don’t fall into the trap of believing you are being unreasonable, either. As Mandu Reid, CEO of the Cup Effect, an organisation trying to combat period shame, says: “Having to go home for your period isn’t really any different to having to go home because of a headache – we shouldn’t have to fetishise it.”
Of course, you’ll have to get your employer, whose job it is to look after you, to see that first. Could you push for that to become a reality, for example by pushing for a responsible period policy at your place of work?
The fight is not yours alone, says Reid: “A dialogue is needed to create a future where fewer people encounter this dilemma. Those of us who don’t have period pains [or periods at all] should carry the burden as well.”
Given my richness in years that earlier rhetoric was that of course periods wouldn’t be a problem while working. What, you think women are fragile snowflakes? That women haven’t been dealing with this for millennia? Of course women won’t need any special treatment at work over periods!