Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The personal is political, but is it professional? 

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices

By Tânia Mendes, Creative Communications Strategist

We’re often told to bring our full selves to work, but no one actually gives us rules as to what that actually means. Is anyone clear?The exact meaning of ‘full self’ is open to interpretation, whilst being vaguely perceived as an invitation for authenticity and a sprinkle of vulnerability. “It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow ourselves to be truly seen,” says author Mike Robins.

The thing is, I agree theoretically with this as an idea; however, when women can’t bring their full bodies and hormones into the workplace, are we really in a position to bring our full selves?

In a recent study, 32 per cent of men said they thought it was ‘unprofessional’ of women to talk about periods at work.” And a third of male workers think it’s ‘inappropriate’ to discuss anything to do with menstruation in the office.

Interesting. Especially when it’s a natural, anatomical bodily function that impacts approximately 50% of the population and takes place intermittently for much of their working life. 

Also interesting was that, in the same study, women shared that they too felt uncomfortable speaking up about periods at work, and 44% shared that they couldn’t be honest about period-related problems impacting their ability to work or the need to take leave.

Where the study fails for me is in digging deeper; why was it seen as unprofessional per se to these men? And what is it that makes women feel uncomfortable?

We need to explore beyond the binary responses to make things different and break the taboo. So we need to talk. We need to bring out the P-word and make it more comfortable for everyone. Yes, it’s extraordinary, but it happens all the time. And as women and people who menstruate, we need to put on our brave pants and own it so that we’re not unconsciously adding to the stigma. 

I appreciate this can be hard. We’re preconditioned from school age to predominantly wait in fear for puberty and a ‘period thing’ that’s positioned as something of a pain. When asked, 56% of women worldwide would rather be bullied at school than talk to their parents about their periods. And this undoubtedly feeds into the reality that 9/10 women hide their period.

It requires some serious rewiring. But the landscape and knowledge about the female body is changing. With increasing awareness and connection to the body – brands and businesses are waking up to the possibility of period power. And this means that as an industry, we need to figure out what we’re doing about periods and hormones – in our workspaces, our working practices, policies and how we’re representing this in our creative work and influencing culture.

In 2021, Nike launched its Cycle Sync programme with the aim to help educate women on how to sync their training to their menstrual cycle and listen to what their body needs at each phase to be better, stronger and more energised. If this is true of training, could this be harnessed in the workplace? Where education on the wondrous power of cycles is available and open to everyone. Where teams build on creating a space of flexibility and employees could explore working in a way that suits distinct cycle phases across the month where possible. 

Coexist in Bristol, also part of the early adopter scene, introducing pioneering period policies, made headlines for their novel stance and efforts to destigmatise periods. “There is a misconception that taking time off makes a business unproductive – actually, it is about synchronising work with the natural cycles of the body. For women this is the menstrual cycle. The spring section of the cycle immediately after a period is a time when women are actually three times as productive as usual,” said Bex Baxter, Director.

What if we were more attuned to our bodies (onus on the individual) and then given the freedom and support by workspaces to deliver at best for them?

Now, I’m not talking about bringing Sex Ed into the office; it’s 100% not the employer’s responsibility (albeit a case for reminders on consent and certain elements of the curriculum could undoubtedly be made). However, it is the responsibility of employers to create a space where a base level understanding of these areas must be held. You can’t make policy, culture and environments about something you don’t know about. Be it periods, pregnancy, miscarriage or menopause.

And beyond an intellectual and abstract knowledge based knowing, this is where actually feeling something might help, to understand the various natural stages of women’s lives, which we have no control over. Physical and mental.

The good people of Essity, the powerhouse behind ‘Viva La Vulva’ and Womb Stories (if you haven’t seen their work – please stop reading now and watch them immediately!) have introduced company-wide training and discussion groups on menopause. They also introduced rooms of various temperatures so that anyone can cool down during hot flushes or feeling hot. A bonus side effect is that men understand more about their female colleagues and gain empathy and insight into what’s happening to loved ones in their lives, their wives, friends, and family. Win-win on relationships all round.

A policy is an excellent place to start, but action and role modelling to make sure that it’s in the fabric of your culture and workplace are better. 

So what are some of the things that we could bring in to create the workplace of the future – but now? Below are just a few things on my wishlist:

  • Temperature – warm and cool rooms/spaces
    • Body temperatures vary due to metabolic rate, which is influenced by sex, and on average, offices are five degrees too cold for women. 
    • Menopause causes hot flushes – waves of unpredictable heat and sweating. 
    • Let’s support these by having warmer and cooler rooms in the workspace and creating fans all round (I couldn’t help it!). 
  • Bathrooms with sinks in the cubicles 
    • So now that we’ve cleared up that there will be people who menstruate at any time in the workplace let’s chat toilets. Please can we have sinks in cubicles to wash hands – and other things. Do you need all the details? Sinks inside. It’s just better for everyone. 
  • Bring in the Psych 
    • Work-life can be busy, and alongside any massage, yoga, eyebrow tinting… to name a few, of the fabulous things offered in office spaces, what if there were weekly 15-minute psych/coaching slots. 
    • Professional, helpful and encouraging gym action for the mind. A spot of preventative maintenance as everyone has mental health, which means everyone needs mental healthcare. 
  • Flexibility – Time & Mapping
    • Inclusive of deadlines – encouragement of mapping out days in sync with what works best for you, mind and body. It’s an invitation to work in a way that’s more attuned to your body and hormones. This is for everyone, women and men.
    • What if, in the future, you could check your hormones (totally in private, data your own) and then map out your day and week in accordance with it. Translating intel inside to be the best you all-round, work and life.
  • Policies & Training
    • Great to have policies; better to have ongoing training and role model what that means. All the things – and sharing what isn’t working so that everyone can learn together.
    • Education needs to happen for teams of all genders.
    • Our needs and understanding of the human mind, body, and work are constantly evolving, so training and policies should too.

If you’re already doing these things, bravo. I can’t wait to see what you do and try out next.

But the masses aren’t quite there yet. And whilst a less urgent moral argument may be that we owe it to future generations to fix this, quite simply: we owe it to ourselves. Work occupies much of life and can be better – because it should be and because it’ll bring in the money. 

Whether you’re leading the charge on the wishlist or not, it’s all in each of our powers to start something. Borrowing a line from a wise young woman, Pippi Longstocking, “I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.” So let’s go. 

See you on the other side where the personal is political, professional, and bloody brilliant.

NB.

Though focussed on hormonal and women’s health, the dream is to create workplaces that experiment and foster cultures of flexibility, equity and openness for ALL employees and their hormones across the intersections, to work in a way that’s best suited to them and works for business.

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