After centuries of shame and stigma, some of the public taboo around menstruation seems to finally be lifting.
In 2017, menstrual product company Thinx sparked conversation with its in-your-face, provocative ads. More recently, a documentary about menstruation won an Academy Award (“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything,” the director said in her acceptance speech). And the Internet even got a drop-of-blood emoji to represent periods.
“It’s becoming just part of what can be discussed and what can and should be part of regular conversation,” says Sharra Vostral, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of “Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology.” “The normalizing of that is kind of a relief in some ways.”
But that cultural shift has yet to change many American workplaces, which often lack the supplies needed by female employees once a month.
In one survey from Free the Tampons, 86% of women said they have started their period unexpectedly while at work. Of those women, more than a third said they went home immediately to get supplies.
“That’s money walking out the door,” says Claire Coder, founder and CEO of Aunt Flow, a company that stocks business and school restrooms with period products. “It’s the most inexpensive employee benefit you can offer.”
The fight for products
It’s surprisingly rare for workplaces to provide menstrual products for employees, and there’s no standard as to how offices should approach the issue. Some have vending machines mounted on the bathroom wall, others provide baskets with multiple options, and still others opt out entirely, providing nothing at all. In the survey from Free the Tampons, less than half of women who were surprised by their period said they had access to a vending machine in a public bathroom.
“Having a period is experienced by both men and women as a source of vulnerability, shame, and repulsion,” says Elisabeth B. Morray, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with U by Kotex. “As such, women feel compelled to hide any indication that they are having a period. This may mean that they feel unable to advocate for themselves in ways that make them more comfortable, effective, and healthy workers — such as being able to use a heating pad at their desks while working or asking for flexibility with their schedules if they experience debilitating cramps.”
Coder compares tampons and pads to toilet paper — and as she points out, you’d never expect an office to ask employees to supply their own toilet paper or pay a quarter to obtain some.
But often, Coder says, the person managing the facilities budget in an organization hasn’t themselves experienced menstruation. To a man, the cost may seem extraneous — even though it’s usually negligible.
“I tell people: ‘Tampons follow the toilet paper,’” she says, referring to the way facilities budgets are managed. “But the majority of the time, those [decision makers] are men, people who have never experienced menstruation. If they’re not thinking about it, why would they offer it?”
When Andrew Fingerman, CEO of PhotoShelter, first crunched the numbers, he was shocked at how affordable it was to provide period products in all nine restrooms.
“The cost of providing feminine products is 70% less than what we provide on coffee,” he says. “If you look in both categories, these are things that make our employees enjoy their day a little bit better.”
In the last year, Photoshelter has since labeled each restroom as an all-gender restroom. Fingerman says period products are available in all of them.
“Companies that care about their employees’ experience need to say ‘Our teammates are spending a significant portion of their lives in the office. How can we make that daily experience a little bit better for them?’” he says. “I think some companies are just not doing that, if they’re not taking a step back.”
The everyday experience
When period products weren’t easily available, women reported feeling embarrassed, anxious and stressed. When a company provides supplies for free, it’s a sign that they’re thinking about that, Coder says. In many ways, it could act as a recruiting tool for female employees or a sign of a company’s gender equity.
“Oftentimes, companies just get caught up in the logistics of the implementation,” she says. “But whatever budget the toilet paper is coming out of, whoever is stocking the toilet paper, reordering the toilet paper — that’s who you assign this to.”
Vostral says she’s seeing more conversation on college campuses, spurred largely by younger women demanding to make these products more accessible.
“I don’t think we’ve had a revolution yet, but it certainly indicates that things are moving to a more open kind of way,” Vostral says. “The thing that is hopeful, is the attitudes that are changing. That’s the part that gives me hope for the future. It’s the bright side to what’s going on.”