Issues associated with menstruation have not been on the mainstream trade union workplace agenda. That should change.
In 2019 the organisation MENSEN—forum för menstruation, for which we work, received financial support from the Swedish Gender Equality Agency to develop an educational concept dealing with menstruation from a work-life perspective. The project resulted in a ‘menstrual certificate’—a knowledge-based concept where employers and employees are provided information about menstruation and health, including menstrual physiology and anatomy as well as sociological perspectives. The menstrual certificate includes process management—how to integrate menstruation as a dimension of the employer’s regular work-environment agenda. The approach was developed in collaboration with the football tech company Forza Football, which last September became the first to receive the menstrual certificate.
This year, MENSEN will work to enhance the certificate materials and develop additional educational methods, all gathered under the umbrella concept ‘Period Works!’. The project is being carried out in collaboration with The Body Shop and Swedish trade unions.
Taboos and myths
Research has demonstrated that in various contexts menstruation is surrounded by taboos and negative norms. Together with menstrual myths and misunderstandings, these express themselves at different levels of society. Within the labour market, the complex of problems is clearly linked to the work environment.
Menstruators sometimes suffer from symptoms related to their menstrual cycle which have an impact on their work performance—just as an employee might suffer from insomnia, migraine, anxiety or a sick child (or even pet) disturbing their peace at work. Still, in general, the problem at work is not the menstrual cycle per se, but rather the work environment and its impact on the health and wellbeing of menstruating employees.
The Swedish Building Workers’ Union and the female section of the Swedish Electricians’ trade union have respectively brought attention to the issue of workplace bathrooms. Last year a news clip went viral in which a construction worker was seen peeing in the apartment owner’s sink, for want of a better alternative; the bathroom was under construction and the constructor had not put a portable toilet in place. (In a situation like that, what would be the solution for an employee having to change a pad or empty a menstrual cup?) The apartment owner underlined that she was not angry at the individual, whose action had clearly been the result of inadequate working conditions, but rather with the construction company.
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The general lack of knowledge around the needs of menstruators, and the restrictive taboos and norms, expresses itself in unsatisfactory conditions for menstruators. In April 2019, we encouraged employers to bring menstrual awareness to their workplaces. Now we are more convinced than ever that there is a need for context-based solutions. The biggest lesson we learned from the 2019 project is that each sector and every workplace is different.
Representatives of the Swedish trade unions with whom we have spoken underline that the lack of bathrooms is a reality at many workplaces within the construction sector. At some, there is a bathroom in place but it lacks running water. This is not only a practical issue affecting individual employees—and, in the longer run, having effects on general public health. It is also a gender-equality issue: lack of proper bathrooms and neglect of menstruators’ need for running water and a bin in which to throw their used menstrual products is one reason why the construction sector is still dominated by men.
At the beginning of our 2019 project, we believed one way forward could be to implement so-called menstrual policies at a workplace level, allowing for menstruators to stay at home if they were experiencing problems during menstruation, among other things. However, the discussion around menstruation and work is evolving and, since then, researchers have pointed out* that such policies risk resulting in further stigma and exclusion of women. The need for a holistic and knowledge-based approach hence remains.
Knowledge is indeed key. We have learnt that policy work is not the way to go. Instead, menstruation must be mainstreamed (as in integrated) as a dimension in regular work on health and safety at the workplace. In Sweden, where employers have a legal responsibility to take on preventive actions against discrimination, menstrual mainstreaming applies to the work area of anti-discrimination as well.
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Here, trade unions play a vital role. This is an open call to European trade unions not only to add menstruation to their agenda but to mainstream a menstrual perspective in their daily activities. That way, they can ensure that not only are menstruators’ needs acknowledged on a symbolic level but unions can likewise contribute to the practical dissemination of knowledge.
On a national level, unions should make sure that ombudspersons have knowledge about the ways in which the work environment can negatively affect the well-being of menstruators. For instance, a menstrual perspective could be integrated within union courses and informational materials targeting members, hence spreading knowledge to local safety representatives. As part of the process of collective bargaining, awareness of how the menstrual cycle functions would further substantiate and support the need for bathrooms, as well as fair working hours where employees actually have time to go to the toilet. Mainstreaming menstruation in the trade union agenda will not only have a positive result for members and employees locally but will also send out the significant message that menstruators’ needs do matter.
Menstruation is clearly a work-related topic with links to work opportunities for women and other menstruators. Given women’s situation within the European labour market, solving the issue of bathrooms and promoting an inclusive and fair social climate at work should be of interest to everyone claiming to strive for gender equality. Mainstreaming menstruation in the trade union agenda and meeting menstrual needs will certainly contribute to improving gender equality within the labour market.
* The linked blog post is a summary of S King, ‘Menstrual leave: good intention, poor solution’, in J Hazzard (ed), The Sage Handbook of Gender and Employment Policies (London: Sage, forthcoming)