Gynaecological health in academia: many are suffering in silence

Kate Sang on how fear of embarrassment and perceived lack of professionalism are impacting academics' lives

十月 16, 2017
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I recently finished research exploring disability in academia that revealed that academics’ bodies are impacted by, and exert impact over, research and teaching. Endometriosis was briefly mentioned in my previous research as a chronic health condition that meant an academic was unable to undertake fieldwork, limiting their career opportunities.

I was curious to know how anyone who experiences menstruation, menopause or gynaecological health conditions navigates the academy – and whether issues such as period poverty were relevant to academics. 

Before applying for research funding to undertake an in-depth analysis of these aspects of gynaecological health, I sent out a pilot survey to academics and professional services staff via Twitter. I hoped for 20 or 30 people who would find the time to answer questions on menstruation, menopause, gynaecological health, period poverty and effects on day-to-day working life. However, I have been surprised at the level of interest in the work.

In the first 24 hours of the survey going live, more than 400 people from around the world have completed the questionnaire. Responses have come from across academic roles, disciplines, countries, ages and genders. The survey aimed to gauge the how and to what extent menstruation, menopause and gynaecological health conditions affects academics’ experiences. The survey is still live, and open for responses. However, a few themes are beginning to emerge. 

Survey respondents stated that their periods are associated with fatigue, cramping and pain. Just over half of respondents stated that their periods negatively affected their ability to undertake day-to-day tasks.

A key emerging theme is the need to be close to toilet facilities to change sanitary wear and a fear of menstrual blood leaking and being visible or leaving stains on seats. Respondents spoke of the need to plan their daily activities around access to bathrooms and pain medication, often finding teaching duties difficult during the first few days of menstruation.

Most respondents felt unable to share their difficulties with colleagues, sometimes because of shame and embarrassment or working in physically dispersed teams or male-dominated groups. Approximately 40 per cent (according to results so far) have taken sick leave because of difficulties associated with periods, with 26 per cent not sharing menstruation as the reason for their leave with employers. 

Of those respondents who had experienced menopause, more than 50 per cent had difficulties with day-to-day tasks as a result. Similar experiences with menstruation were reported, with the addition of hot flashes and insomnia. In addition, respondents stated that their periods became unpredictable and unmanageable.

Academics were concerned that hot flashes and the associated sweating would make them appear unprofessional in front of colleagues and students. About 30 per cent of those who had experienced menopause had taken sick leave, with most of these not reporting menopause as the reason. 

Similar patterns are seen among respondents with gynaecological health conditions such as interstitial cystitis, endometriosis and fibroids. Respondents experienced chronic and debilitating pelvic pain, heavy periods, nausea and vomiting. The effects of these were extreme enough for some respondents to move to part-time working to accommodate their periods. One academic had miscarried at work, but received very little support from her line manager. 

Academics felt that the heavy workloads and intense cognitive effort required in academia were difficult at times. Long working hours and stress can make it difficult to undertake necessary relaxation exercises to relieve pelvic pain, for example. However, the flexible nature of academic work was also found to be useful for respondents.

Working from home helped a number of academics to balance their physical health and their workloads. Most respondents did not report period poverty, however, those who did said they borrow money from friends and family for tampons and sanitary towels or to pay for medication. 

It is important to note that gynaecological health conditions and menstruation do not just affect those who identify as ciswomen. We need to know how people who are non-binary, intersex, trans* or genderqueer may experience combining managing menstruation with academic labour, if we are to create a truly inclusive academy. Non-binary respondents reported particular difficulties associated with managing menstruation that is contra to their gender identity. 

Overall, the survey so far suggests that many academics are experiencing some considerable challenges managing their gynaecological health while balancing the complex and heavy workloads of teaching and research. Teaching was seen as particularly difficult because of fatigue and potential embarrassment of leaks of menstrual fluids on to clothing.

This study is just the start of investigating gynaecological health in academia, but it suggests there are many academics are suffering in silence, because of fear of embarrassment or because having periods is seen as conflicting with professionalism.

Universities can help to reduce some of these effects by providing access to adequate toilet facilities that include disposal bins, somewhere to make up a hot water bottle, flexible working and free sanitary products. There is still huge stigma to overcome if we are to create a truly inclusive university where periods are seen as normal and toilets are close by and accessible. 

Kate Sang is professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University. The survey is still open and can be found here.



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