The working population is showing more equality in the UK between the number of women working in comparison with the number of men — around 13 million women as opposed to 15 million men. There have also been moves towards equality in parental leave, pensionable age, pay, the hours worked and the type of work carried out, although it is accepted that progress has been slower in some areas than others. While we strive to achieve equality, we also have to remember that there are differences between men and women. Have we pushed practice and perception sufficiently towards a status of equality that we can be open about the differences that genuinely exist between men and women, asks Gudrun Limbrick?

The working age for women is, to a large extent, the age at which they are fertile and their bodies are prepared for childbearing. This means that the majority of working women have periods to deal with. Women’s bodies go to enormous lengths to prepare for the possibility of pregnancy each month and for a minority of women, this can have a very significant effect on their wellbeing. While medicines and sanitary wear, and the contraceptive pill have made periods perfectly manageable for most women, a few still suffer with pain, discomfort and emotional turmoil. This is a fact of life. It means that some women have to deal with something, on a very frequent basis, different to anything that men experience during the regular course of events.

Most of us, if we could predict that in a fortnight’s time, we were going to have a migraine and probably be physically very sick, would want to let our employer know that it would not be a great time to hold that important meeting, go up scaffolding, or carry out a particular medical procedure. We would feel comfortable saying, for example, if we were having a tooth extracted on a particular morning that we probably would not be able to work to our full capacity that afternoon. It serves the employees’ needs in that individuals then do not feel that they are being expected to work as hard as usual when they are not feeling up to it, and it serves employers’ needs in that they can rearrange that key meeting to a time when their member of staff is performing at his or her best.

On this very practical level, it is surprising then that women who can predict that they are going to be in pain or unwell, do not, as a general rule, inform their employer so that steps can be taken to ease the situation for both the company and the individual concerned. It would seem to be common sense, and yet, as far as this issue is concerned, we are very far from common sense being the main factor at play.

I believe there are several reasons that we find ourselves in this situation. The first is perhaps based in politics. People have fought very hard for equality in the workplace and the last thing that most women want is to make an issue of our differences. In order to be taken seriously as equal players, many people feel we should not point out that periods can be a problem for some women or ask for “special treatment”. True equality, however, is not about treating everyone in exactly the same way, it is about ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of their differences.

The second reason is that menstruation is not easy to talk about. Some women find it embarrassing to mention periods, other people find it awkward to hear about periods. Instead, the “time of the month” is alluded to in hushed tones and an open conversation is avoided. Additionally, discussion of periods can allude to other issues: contraception, sex, wanting to get pregnant, which are topics that few of us want to discuss with our colleagues or employers.

The third reason is that there is stereotyping around periods that women generally would rather avoid. Having colleagues giggling that a woman is being unreasonable or emotional because she is on her period is a particularly common and yet aggravating situation in many workplaces. Worse still, it can be used to tease or belittle female colleagues. Few of us want to put ourselves through that voluntarily.

For the majority of women, we get by perfectly fine and do our utmost not to make an issue of menstruation in the workplace. For most of us, it is easier to hide it than to ask for support from our employers. For some women, however, bad periods affect the jobs we can take on. For some, the monthly pain is so bad that it precludes regular employment and it is preferable not to take on certain work rather than negotiate regular time off with an employer. Other employees may find that they have to phone in sick regularly with “stomach upsets”.

In 2007, Nike became the only global brand to include menstrual leave in its code of conduct. While hopes were high at the time, other big companies have not followed suit. Why does Nike manage to make it work when other companies do not even feel it is worthwhile to try? Yet, this is by no means a new, or unique idea. As far back as 1947, Japan passed a law giving time off for women with period pain. Taiwanese female workers are given three days off a year as menstrual leave, and in Indonesia, women have the option of two days a month. Are we in this country just too British to discuss these things?

Perhaps we need comprehensive research that looks at the cost of not having a menstrual policy. We need to find out how many women are not able to pursue their dream job because of their bad periods; how many women regularly take time off sick rather than negotiate just a bit of downtime at work. We need to ask women what they need in the workplace to help them be 100% effective when they are menstruating. Armed with this sort of knowledge, a two-way dialogue can perhaps begin that looks at how the issue can be handled without women fearing being criticised for needing special treatment.

Equality in the workplace is a precious thing. Where it exists, the last thing that anyone wants to do is rock the boat, so it is entirely understandable that it is easier for all concerned to ignore the issue of menstruation and any particular considerations that some women may need to be offered. It is also understandable that some things are just too embarrassing to be discussed at work. However, this leaves us with an impasse and some women are losing out significantly as a result. There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. We are very fortunate to have examples of good practice in Asia, and examples that go back decades. Perhaps it is to this continent we should turn for help so that the impasse can be overcome.

Last reviewed 9 June 2016