Local authorities in Scotland were met with quite the backlash this week when they announced the appointment of a “period dignity officer”. The newly created role will work to implement the country’s landmark Period Products Act, which mandates that period products must be available for free in public facilities, as well as to end stigma around periods and menopause.
The idea of the role was not controversial. The reason for the response was that a man, who has never had a period, has been appointed for the job.
Scotland’s policy is indicative of a growing appetite for better support and care when it comes to periods. The country is now miles ahead of the rest of the UK in breaking down taboos around menstruation. According to the BBC, since 2017, the Scottish government has invested around £27m in improving access to period products in public settings. The Scottish parliament passed the Periods Products Act in 2020, and it came into force this month.
The UK government’s Women’s Health Strategy, published in July, illustrated just how problematic periods can be. In its call for evidence, the government heard from women who felt invalidated when it came to period care from professionals – “for example, being told that heavy and painful periods are ‘normal’ or that the woman will ‘grow out of them’”. The strategy also mentions that some organisations raised the issue of period poverty and the need for ending “period stigma”. The International Planned Parenthood Federation has warned against the harm that myths and misconceptions about periods can do, and how such misinformation feeds “into stigma which can be hugely damaging to many girls, women, and people who menstruate around the world”. Action Aid found that back in 2018, 37 per cent of UK women have experienced “period shaming” of some form.
Much of the logic behind Scotland’s innovative policy was based on the extent of period poverty in the UK. In May, Action Aid reported that six per cent of parents had “resorted to stealing” to provide menstrual products for their children, while more than 137,700 girls in the UK have missed school as a result of not being able to afford sanitary products. During the pandemic, the problem only increased, as more than a third of girls aged 14-21 struggled to access menstrual products – up by 20 per cent on the previous year.
For many, the appointment of a man as Scotland’s “first period dignity officer” undermines the broader policy. Making period care more accessible and reducing the stigma and misinformation around menstruation means putting the needs of those who menstruate at the forefront of implementation. As Jason Grant, the appointee, has never had a period, many critics have questioned his ability to do the job justice. Caroline Nokes, Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons women and equalities committee shares this view. She tells Spotlight: “Whilst it is vitally important men understand periods and the menopause, it’s ridiculous [that] a position, which actually requires personal knowledge of periods, has been given to a man – who has none.”
The appointment also fails to recognise that for many young people speaking to an older man about their periods might be a matter of some discomfort. Cultural and religious sensibilities could make this even more fraught, potentially alienating many of the people he is meant to be helping.
Grant addressed the potential controversy in a press release announcing his appointment: “I think being a man will help me to break down barriers, reduce stigma and encourage more open discussions. Although affecting women directly, periods are an issue for everyone. We’ll also raise awareness of the menopause, which, although a natural process for women, has wider repercussions in the world of work and family.” A spokesman for the working group that hired Grant reportedly defended the decision, saying employing him “was a no-brainer with his vast experience in project management from both the private and public sectors”.
Periods can be disruptive – from misunderstood premenstrual conditions such as severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS), to debilitating and under-researched conditions such as endometriosis. Grant is right that ensuring that the whole of society, including men who make up vast portions of management in workplaces, teachers in schools and medical professionals, understand periods and are part of the battle to break down stigma.
But a male “period dignity officer” sends a confusing message, one that doesn’t necessarily help to empower women and girls. The appointment is illustrative of what happens when policymakers do not keep the subjects of their policy front and centre. Grant might do a great job, and his being in the role might just help break down gendered stigma around menstruation. But, ultimately, his appointment fails to recognise the needs of the those who have periods and what they may actually require in order to access his support.