Picture the scene. An office full of people quietly typing away at their computers. A woman gets up, conscious of disturbing the peace. She sidles up to other women in the room and, in the quietest of whispers, mortified at the thought that anyone else might hear, she asks the dreaded question: “Do you have a tampon?”
But this social operetta is not over. Having located a tampon (or sanitary towel, or ibuprofen, if she is in pain) the item is handed over like contraband, hidden in her hand or up her sleeve or in her pocket because – horror of horrors – what could be worse than colleagues knowing that she has her period?
For those of us who have the dubious pleasure, menstruation is a regular and mundane occurrence. At best it is an inconvenience and an expense. At worst, as for my New Statesman colleague Emma Haslett, it can be excruciatingly painful and debilitating. Either way, it is an experience shared, at some point in their lives, by more than half of the population of the globe. And yet, even though periods shape the lives of such a huge chunk of humanity, it is still taboo and in bad taste to acknowledge their existence in male company.
This is one fundamental reason why draft legislation in Spain that would give women an optional three days of leave for severe period pain – with two extra days in extreme cases – is a welcome step. In fact it should be rolled out everywhere. The Spanish equality minister Irene Montero tweeted last month that the country would “recognise in the law the right to leave for women who have painful periods that will be financed by the state”. It would no longer be “normal to go to work in pain”, the minister said. The bill would “end the stigma, shame and silence around periods”.
The silence and shame she referred to goes for women’s bodies in general. Whether it’s the euphemisation of birth via sickly saccharine images of glowing pregnant women and smiling mothers and newborns with no blood or physical exertion in sight, or the reference to periods as “that time of the month”, women are under enormous social pressure to keep quiet about their pesky, messy, inconvenient bodies.
The menopause is another case in point. According to the British Menopause Society, more than 75 per cent of women experience menopausal symptoms – which can include hot flashes, anxiety, depression and insomnia. High-profile women such as Davina McCall have been speaking up to end the societal blind spot around what menopausal women go through, as well as the problems they face in getting treatment. In February, the Women and Equalities Committee heard evidence on how to make the workplace more menopause-friendly.
It would be hard to argue that progress on this front would be bad for gender equality. The job prospects of menopausal woman are unlikely to be hurt more by recognition of their symptoms than by the sexism (and ageism) they already face in the job market. And the same goes for periods. Using the cover of sick leave to take time off because of excruciating period pain only perpetuates the silence, shame and stigma that affects girls even before they enter the workforce. A sobering poll released this week by WaterAid found that 20 per cent are missing school or work because they are struggling to afford period products. This is a scandal, but there is hardly a public debate about it – the silence is more comfortable.
And let’s face it, if an employer is put off from hiring a woman because she might take time off due to excruciating period pain, perhaps said woman would be better off contributing her talents elsewhere.