Periods still ‘cultural taboo’ in research organisations

The study also highlighted that researchers were cynical that the sector could improve the working conditions of people managing menstruation

June 13, 2024
A woman clutches her stomach because of period pain
Source: iStock/dragana991

Female researchers continue to face a number of challenges in the workplace relating to their periods, according to a new study, particularly in remote sites where “menstruation is a cultural taboo”.

A team from Heriot-Watt University says there has been increasing interest from employers, policymakers and the general public in women’s reproductive health, but many barriers remain for those who work in the research and innovation ecosystem.

While the study specifically focuses on women working as researchers, the group said the paper had implications for all genders, workplaces and career stages.

They warned that women, transgender and non-binary people managing periods at work faced a number of challenges, including inaccessible washroom facilities, poorly informed managers and continued shame, particularly around menstrual bleeding. In addition, they must cope with pain management and absence policies that do not account for menstruation.

The study, which is based on 55 interviews, identifies further specific issues for researchers working in laboratories, doing fieldwork, or conducting remote research on sites such as oil rigs and workplaces where “menstruation is a cultural taboo”.

“The lack of accommodations in research and innovation workplaces has contributed to researchers with problematic menstruation and peri/menopause leaving research careers,” warns the study.

Kate Sang, a professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt, said workplace policies on menstrual health were still an under-researched area and the topic was still “poorly understood”.

“Workers in remote and non-office locations are particularly likely to face challenges managing their symptoms because of poor facilities and understanding,” she added.

The paper also found that personal protective equipment was often designed for men and was unsuitable for those managing periods, and that menopause or menstruation policies often failed to improve working lives.

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The study recommends menstrual health education for organisations and managers, a review of uniforms and personal protective equipment worn in workplaces, better toilet provision and shower facilities in all work environments.  

It also highlighted that researchers shared “considerable cynicism” and an overall distrust in the sector, particularly academia, to improve the working conditions of people managing menstruation.

Professor Sang told Times Higher Education that the sector’s “high workloads, high performance targets and the use of precarious contracts” had contributed to a general distrust of employers.

“Women told us that they didn’t feel they could take medical or disability leave, instead working through pain and other debilitating symptoms,” she added.

“We saw considerable shame and stigma that prevented women being open with their employers.”

Although the interviews focused on menstrual health, the Heriot-Watt researchers say academics managing other stigmatised conditions, such as bowel or bladder dysfunction, feel similar pressures.

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