Suffering through painful period cramps at work is a nightmare. Here at stylist.co.uk, we’re lucky enough to work with people who understand that fact; all we have to do is ask, and our deskmates will pull out a variety of painkillers, hot water bottles and, if required, chocolate bars to help ease the pain.
But, of course, we know that we’re in a uniquely fortunate position when it comes to the workplace: for many women, menstruation is still a hugely taboo topic, even in the UK. They’re forced to hide their tampons in their sleeve as they make their way to the office bathroom, speak about their menstrual cycle in euphemisms (think Aunt Flo and ‘time of the month’, for starters), and, most annoyingly of all, grin and grimace their way through the pain.
However we didn’t realise quite how bad things were for some until this woman’s story of periods and the patriarchy went viral on Twitter.
The story - which was brought to the attention of the world via Twitter user @anygirlfriday - sees a mumsnet.com user explain that she had been experiencing hideous menstrual cramps at work. The kind of cramps that painkillers just won’t shift.
Luckily, she remembered that she – like so many other male and female employees in her notoriously chilly office – had a hot water bottle in her desk drawer. So she filled it up, clamped it against her stomach, and let that glorious warmth do its job.
“My sort-of-supervisor (we’ll call him Guy) comes over to talk to me about something, notices the hot water bottle, and says ‘There’s no way you’re cold today, are you?’” writes the mumsnet.com user.
“I say, ‘Um, no, just for the pain relief’. He looks confused, and then literally horrified, and then he walks away.”
So far, so normal: a lot of men get inexplicably tongue-tied when confronted by the realities of menstruation, even if said reality is literally just seeing a hot water bottle and knowing what it’s alleviating. Honestly, if you ever want to clear a room of menfolk, we advise that you toss a tampon at them and watch them beat their hasty getaways.
Unfortunately, though, according to the woman, Guy wasn’t just content to stew in his ridiculous embarrassment.
She was sent a private message by a member of the human resources (HR) team, who asked her if she was feeling OK. Apparently Guy had told them that she wasn’t feeling well and should go home, because obviously Guy knows his colleague’s body better than she does.
She soon responded to the message, telling them that she was using a hot water bottle to ease her period cramps. And she thought that would be the end of it.
But, just 10 minutes later, the woman was called up by the HR director, who asked her to find a meeting room as quickly as possible.
When they sat down to talk, the director told the baffled employee that she “shouldn’t disclose [her] medical problems to anyone who isn’t part of HR as it can make them uncomfortable.”
“I’m literally shocked,” says the mumsnet.com user (we hear you, girl). “I explain exactly what happened, [but the HR director] says, ‘Yes, I understand, but if you’re so unwell that you need a hot water bottle, then you should be home. Guy is extremely uncomfortable and it’s unprofessional.”
She goes on to say: “I’m just completely flabbergasted. Especially considering that Guy has been known to take clients whilst laying flat on the floor because of back problems – which seems to me both unprofessional and likely to make people uncomfortable.
“Other people have standing desks, weird foot rests, all kinds of chairs and special backrests for their back pain, and wrist braces for their wrist pain, and a hundred other things, and I’m not allowed to have a hot water bottle for my menstrual cramps?
“Am I right to be completely f**king furious?”
Unsurprisingly, the internet is well and truly on the woman’s side – and a lot of people are planning a big ol’ sanitary product-based revenge for Guy, too.
I've got some fuck off big sanny pads I can throw Guys way. Proper maternity pads.— Rachel Hawkins (@ourrachblogs) July 12, 2017
Holy shit! Fine, HR, I'll take 5 fully paid days off a month to bleed in the comfort of my own home.— Catherine Rooney-Ward (@Rooneroo) July 12, 2017
"Guy is extremely uncomfortable and it's unprofessional".— Emmeline May AKA Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess (@RStarDinoPirate) July 12, 2017
Yes. It IS really unprofessional of Guy to be this uncomfortable about periods.
"I need to disclose a medical condition. I have a uterus."— Emmeline May AKA Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess (@RStarDinoPirate) July 12, 2017
I need to disclose a medical condition; I'm allergic to jerks like Guy— Mary Branscombe (@marypcbuk) July 12, 2017
If men had periods 7 sick days A MONTH would b standard.— Sissy eats grits ABD,MA,M.Ed,MFA,BFA w/hot sauce (@divafancypants) July 12, 2017
If this is an accurate retelling, Guy’s misplaced discomfort absolutely should not have been given precedence over his female colleague’s actual, painful, physical discomfort – and, in an ideal world, an HR director should have told him to shut up and get over himself when he went bleating to them about a female colleague who had dared to bleed from her uterus in his vicinity.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a woman’s period has had a negative impact on her working day: studies have shown that an overwhelming 68% of us don’t feel comfortable speaking to men at work about our period, which can cause many problems.
Elizabeth Segran, who has conducted extensive research into workplace menstruation for fastcompany.co.uk, explains: “[One woman] described how she once leaked onto a white dress and desperately needed to go to the bathroom to wash it out, but she had a couple of meetings to attend and didn’t feel comfortable asking her male editor for half an hour to take care of the problem.”
She explains that other women have had men find out about their ‘time of the month’ and used it to dismiss their ideas and opinions in meetings: for this reason alone, 5% of women don’t carry their handbags to the toilet, just in case men clock that they’re menstruating.
And, of course, she points out that hardly any offices have tampon or pad dispensers in their bathrooms, making it very tricky for women who unexpectedly come on their period during the working day: they either need to rush to a nearby shop, ask a colleague or fashion a DIY pad out of toilet paper. A whopping 79% of women tend to opt for the latter option.
So what’s the solution?
Well, Stylist’s own Lucy Mangan has long championed menstrual leave for working women.
Writing in her column, she says: “Instituting any workplace policy that only affects women is hard. Instituting one that is actually centred on what the most yucky, womanly bit of them does is even harder. But, as with so many things, I find it gets a lot simpler if you just start thinking of women as – get this! – people.
“Some people suffer from occasional or regular incapacitating pain. Here, they are all women, yes, and the pain is caused by periods – so what? If it was only men who had to use wheelchairs, would we object to putting ramps in places? If a man had a tendency to get a recurring twisted testicle (it is a thing and I’m told it is very painful) would we deny him a day off each time it needed untwisting just because he has a troublesome ball?
“Period pain is a debilitating condition that affects some people and not others. Go from there. Simple.”
It’s that or, y’know, men like Guy get their s*** together and learn to deal with the fact that women have periods. It’s 2017 and it’s time to get the hell over yourselves.
Images: Parks and Recreation / NBC