Systemic barriers related to stigma and subordination at work exist because of menstruation and related conditions. This results from the failure of many workplaces to acknowledge, anticipate, or accommodate the needs of people who menstruate or are in perimenopause or menopause—approximately half of today’s workforce. Unfortunately, without access to affordable, safe menstrual products and locations to apply and dispose of them, some people are likely to miss work, experience presenteeism problems, or be pushed out of the workforce. Menstrual stigma, shame, a lack of lived experiences of people in power, and poor menstrual education also make some workers susceptible to indignities at work related to their menstrual cycle, including discrimination, harassment, and bullying. This also could lead to lost wages, privacy violations, health implications, and other harms. Both voluntary employer actions and the law are (slowly) changing this reality. But we are far from a universal right to engage in dignified menstruation for all workers.
Menstruation and Related Conditions: A Biology Primer
Menstruation is not a universal experience—nor is it experienced universally the same. Instead, from approximately the ages of 10 to 51, some people with a uterus shed roughly two to five tablespoons of blood and tissue for around five days every 21 to 35 days. Menstrual cycles also vary over the course of one’s life and from person to person. Even “normal” cycles change in terms of rate and amount. Some people also experience pain (of various degrees) and other symptoms like anxiety, backaches, concentration problems, hot flashes, insomnia, and mood changes.
Most people who menstruate are cis girls and women, but not all women menstruate, and not all menstruators are women. Transgender men, genderqueer, and intersex individuals also may menstruate or be in perimenopause or menopause.
Menopause is the permanent cessation of menstruation, measured retroactively as 12 months after someone’s last period. Perimenopause, which is often characterized by erratic, unexpected heavy bleeding, is seven years before menopause on average. Regardless of age, hysterectomies and other procedures also cause menopause, and people may choose to medically suppress menstruation.
In addition to sex, gender identity, and age, lived experiences with menstruation intersect with people’s race, religion, class, and disability. Menstruation and menopause are not usually disabilities. Nonetheless, symptoms of some people’s cycles or related conditions such as dysmenorrhea or endometriosis (which impacts 1 out of 10 menstruators) may be a disability or a serious health condition. Further, some conditions disproportionality impact certain groups. For example, Black women are more prone to polycystic ovary syndrome and uterine fibroids; they also undergo hysterectomies and myomectomies at substantially greater rates.