Vicky Carmichael

What Does My Period Have to do With Work?

Tito recently introduced Period Days at work—an optional, but encouraged, extra paid day off each month for when you're on your period.

We're not the first company to do this. In fact, Japan has had a law since 1947 granting seiri kyuuka (“menstrual leave”) to women enduring painful periods. That said, Tito is the first —and so far only—company that I know of personally who’s doing something like this.

Previously, the only other period-at-work-related campaign I’d seen was Alice Bartlett’s Tampon Club. The idea: pop a load of sanitary products in the office bathrooms for people to use when they’re caught short while on their period. Simple but effective.

Paul first raised the idea of Period Days in our 1:1 call, prefaced by "there's something I'd like to introduce, but I'm not sure how it'd be received…" When he explained the concept to me and his thinking behind it, I told him Period Days got my vote.

We're a small team—just ten of us in total. And, being small, when we have an idea we'd like to implement, we're in the fortunate position to be able to just do it if people are generally in favour of it. Turns out people were (or at least no one objected), and so Period Days are now live at Tito.

Here's our official wiki entry about it:

Wiki on Period Days

Today's my first time taking a Period Day, and I want to share some thoughts and address some questions or comments that may have popped into your head while reading this post so far. Because I appreciate that this can be a divisive issue.

Let's start with some good old fashioned whataboutery.

What about the men?

Some things are uneven to account for an imbalance elsewhere. For instance, maternity leave tends to be longer than paternity leave, but this makes sense to a lot of people because they understand that a mother typically carries the child for nine months and goes through labour, while a father typically ejaculates. And I'm reliably informed one of those things is less enjoyable than the other.

I'm being flippant of course. I think it's very important that every parent gets to spend as much time as possible with their children. I just mean to highlight the fact that sometimes it makes sense to take action that favours a particular group, if it's to make up for some way in which that group is at a disadvantage.

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.

— Aristotle

Take it from me: it sucks to bleed from your genitals on a regular basis. If I could swap my extra day off for not having to go through the hell of having periods, I would. (Again, I'm being flippant. See my next point).

What about women who don't have periods?

This is more nuanced. In trying to do something good for a group of people, sometimes you end up inadvertently upsetting others.

While getting your period is a pain in the ovaries, it can be incredibly distressing when you don't get your period. Periods can stop for lots of reasons. Pregnancy, birth control and menopause, yes, but also stress, being underweight or overweight, and as a result of medical issues. Also, trans women may not have periods, although period-like symptoms are possible.

I understand how women who don't get periods could view Period Days as an unwelcome reminder. Or they may even worry that it might "expose" something they don't want other people to know, if they're seen to not be taking a Period Day.

A lot of this comes down to the general taboo around periods, which I want to look at in a little more detail later in this post.

But for now I'll refer to the maternity leave example again. Seeing colleagues go on leave to have a baby when you're struggling to conceive or adopt can be incredibly painful. But we understand why new parents should still get to go on leave.

But a period doesn't usually last just one day!

That's true. It also doesn't necessarily happen just once in a calendar month. My cycle is totally irregular—anything from 24-49 days.

Period Days are a gesture made in good faith. By introducing them, Tito is essentially saying: when you're on your period you may feel grim, and it's OK to take a day off.

I don't think it's necessary or practical to go so far as giving us multiple days off around our period. I don't think it'll be policed; nor do I think us period-havers will abuse the privilege.

We're a small, close-knit team, so this policy will work just fine for our setup. But maybe if a larger company were looking to implement Period Days, they'd have to give this some more thought.

Slack screenshot
Image description: Me notifying a colleague in Slack that I'm taking a period day, and her telling me to feel better. 💜

You're writing a blog post right now. You're fine! You didn't need to take the day off.

Fair point. It's the first day of my period today, and I'm bloated and tired and having painful cramps, but yes, technically I could have worked. After all, I've been working pretty much every other weekday of having my period up to this point in my life.

Sometimes I've dragged myself in to work while feeling totally awful. I get migraines around the start of my period and I usually throw up. (During my period I also get intense flu like symptoms, stabbing pains in my breasts, and I feel like the world is going to end…it's a real party. Still jealous of my day off?) But to avoid having too many sick days on my record, I've often powered through.

And I'm glad I don't have to anymore.

While researching this article I found the following quote from a police officer: “when my period was due my boobs would get really sensitive and wearing the bullet/stab-proof vest was torture." These are the types of things I’d just never really considered before starting to have this conversation.

I don't think I'll take a Period Day every single time I have a period. Partly, I took it off this time because it's the first month of us having Period Days, and it's still a bit of a novelty, and partly because I’ve been travelling this week and feel really tired anyway. But if I feel fine or I have lots to do, I wouldn’t usually take a day off just for the sake of it. To re-emphasise, it’s totally optional.

My initial feeling when I decided to take today off was actually one of guilt, despite being entitled to a Period Day and it even being explicitly encouraged by my managers. This is a very interesting psychological reaction that I'd like to unpack at some point, but this post is already getting a bit long winded.

But I wanted to share a selfie I took yesterday just before I came on. I look several months pregnant, right? That’s bloating (this is why it happens), and I get it every month. It’s not a big deal in the scheme of things but I happened to be giving a presentation at work yesterday which was being filmed, and so I unconsciously sucked in my stomach all day, which was suuuuper uncomfortable. This is my relieved face! (Apologies for the toilet in the background, though given the tone of this post, it’s actually fitting.)

Bloated Vicky
Image description: Me looking extremely bloated.

For that effort alone, I feel like I’ve earned this day off.

But people will know you're on your period!

I've mentioned my period more times in this post than Amy Schumer during a talk show appearance, and that may have made some of you uncomfortable.

Most of us are grossed out by periods, and I get it. It's blood and it comes from your private parts—it's not the best!

That said, I feel like we're more grossed out by periods than by any other natural bodily function. Tons of films have bloody scenes, and tons of films (usually bad comedies) feature vomit, urine and excrement. I can only think of two films I've seen in my entire life that showed period blood. In both scenes it was treated as disgusting and unnatural.

We talk euphemistically about times of the month. In adverts, they use blue goop to "represent" period blood. And in some cultures and religions, women on their periods are even referred to as unclean. It's a deeply ingrained taboo that's going to take some shaking.

My favourite thing about Period Days isn't actually the day off. It's the implicit permission to talk about the natural biological experience of having a period, and the acceptance of it.

After all, it's just my body creating a lining to keep a baby safe in case I get pregnant, and then shedding the lining when it realises it's not actually needed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not itching to start getting into specifics about colour and viscosity. But if someone asks me how I am, it'd be good to be able to be honest and say "I'm about to start my period so I actually feel a bit rough" without them going as red as… (I won't say it).

Not every woman will share my eagerness to break down the taboo around periods. Some women might feel weird about their managers knowing exactly where they’re at in their cycle. And those women might choose not to take a Period Day at all, because they'd rather not have to let people know that they're on their period. That's cool too, and I respect their choice.

What is this first world bullshit?

I hear you. I’m acutely aware of the privileged position I’m in while talking about this topic. There are far greater problems in the world that need addressing.

Campaigners are using the hashtag #periodpoverty to draw attention to the fact that 1 in 10 girls are unable to afford to buy menstrual products. According to a report “More than 137,700 girls have missed school in the last year because they couldn’t afford sanitary products”. This can cause them to fall behind their peers at school, impacting them in later life.

For homeless people, periods can be a living nightmare. This blog post explains how homeless people deal with having their period, using items from “socks, plastic bags, and napkins, to rags, shirts and cotton balls,” and warns of the health risks including toxic shock syndrome.

Menstruation is taboo in many places around the world, which can often lead to a lack of open conversation. A 2014 study in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley slum found that “over 75% of girls had little idea what menstruation was before they got their first period”. This meant that not only were they embarrassed and shameful when their period arrived, they also were woefully unprepared.

Studies have also shown a strong link between poor menstrual management and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) in women. RTIs “are a major public health concern worldwide and are particularly common in low-income settings” (source).

There is an urban/rural divide in many countries, such as Fiji, where “a wide range of reputable sanitary products” are available and affordable to people in urban areas, but not in rural areas. Instead, many rely on home-made solutions, which can be ineffective at best and a serious health risk at worst.

Change is starting to happen in some places. The 2018 Oscar nominated short documentary film Period. End of Sentence. looks at Indian women “leading a quiet sexual revolution” by producing low-cost, biodegradable, and affordable sanitary pads for their communities. But the film also highlights how the taboo around menstruation can lead to misinformation being spread.

Period. End of Sentence
Image description: Poster for Period. End of Sentence.

As I’ve mentioned, some cultures and religions view menstruation as unclean, and impose restrictions on women during their periods. Scholars disagree about how this stigma arose, but theories include misogyny and reproductive envy, while one particularly controversial theory is that menstrual taboos were born of female-led behaviours—that we were the ones to originally “establish menstruation as a time when [our] bodies could not be touched”. That’s mostly batshit, but also kind of makes sense. I do get pretty ratty around this time of the month…

Whatever the causes, I wanted to take this opportunity to draw attention to these issues. If you want to take action, here are a handful of resources to get you started:

You may also want to check out organisations like Plan International, IWDA and Femme International whose work includes education and resources for girls and women around the world.

Don’t Period Days actually set women back?

See also: We shouldn’t coddle women! // How can we take women seriously if they need a day off for a hurty tummy every month? // A woman will never be president now!

Well, firstly, a woman will never be president because we apparently care more about questionable emails than about sexual predator behaviour. But that aside, this general argument carries a lot of weight for me, so I definitely want to address this.

I remember reading an article a few years ago called something like “how to talk to women on Twitter”, which was full of recommendations for ways to phrase things and language to avoid. And it rubbed me up the wrong way.

“No!” I thought, “That’s the opposite of what I want. Don’t tiptoe around me because I’m a woman. I’m not a delicate flower. If you’d say something to a man, you can say it to me. I can handle it”.

Many women feel this way about menstrual leave.

“Femaleness is not actually an illness” says Catherine Bennett, and argues that things like menstrual leave reinforce negative ideas for those who think that “female biology is at odds with high office”. That’s a fair point.

“If women really want to demystify their bodies in their places of employment, maybe they should just drag those menstruating bodies to work and give their colleagues the play-by-play“ says Katy Waldman. Her point being that by hiding away at home, we may increase the taboo around periods, rather than decrease it. And I see where she’s coming from.

Emily Matchar asks if paid menstrual leave is actually reverse sexism. (We’ve shared our thoughts on “reversisms” before, so I’ll just leave a link to that here). But she also says “paid sick leave would seem to take care of the problem just as well without forcing women to share their lunar cycles with their bosses”. And again, I agree with that idea in principle.

Haley Goldberg raises the point that menstrual leave could actually have a knock-on effect of increasing the gender pay gap, as “female employees could "cost more" to employers.” A reminder that this topic is part of a larger socio economic debate.

So are Period Days the way to go?

I don’t think there’s one right answer to that. I think with this, as with anything, it’s a case of exploring the intention, weighing up the options, and making a judgement call. Different things will work for different companies.

My personal take is that Tito is trying to do a good thing here, and it’s been gratefully received by the women in the team. As far as I know, I’m the first person to take advantage of the new policy, so this all feels like uncharted territory.

I doubt I'll need or want to take a Period Day every month. I work from home anyway, so if it’s just a case of minor cramps and an angry breakout, of course I’ll just work through it. But I’m thankful that if I’m having a particularly hellish time of it, which I sometimes do, the option is open to take the day off. Now I just need to work on the root cause of feeling guilty about it.

Anyway, I must go. I need to change my tampon. 👍