More than 800 million people menstruate everyday, but the word “menstruation” is often still spoken about through whispers.
“There’s definitely a stigma. I never felt comfortable, especially telling male teachers menstrual-related things,” said Connor Hagen, a junior creative writing major.
Hagen said although he stopped menstruating in May 2019, he used to have severe symptoms during his menstrual cycle that led him to miss a number of classes, prompting a discussion with his professors.
Beverly Anderson, associate dean of Student Health and Support at Columbia, said students often visit the Student Health Center with menstruation-related issues and said students tell her they feel “weird” when they have to ask for permission to leave class.
Kevin Cooper, associate professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department, said he has had similar experiences involving students and menstruation.
“It’s really important that faculty and staff deal with that reality with compassion and understanding,” he said. “[We have to] make sure that the environment they go to learn in is positive and supportive.”
This issue does not just interrupt day-to-day schoolwork—it expands to the workplace, as well.
Two years ago, Margarita Marquez was at work managing the Congress Plaza Hotel when she began to lose balance while walking to the bathroom.
“I almost passed out. I was so weak and disoriented,” Marquez said.
Marquez said she had her period for six consecutive months, but she did not give it the necessary attention, so she did not take days off from work.
Later, she explained to her boss what was going on, and he responded positively, encouraging her to go to the hospital. There, she had a blood transfusion and learned she had lost 50% of her blood because of endometriosis—a chronic, painful condition caused by abnormal tissue in the uterus.
“I didn’t keep it a secret. I know a lot of women feel embarrassed because they have a male boss,” Marquez said. “It’s a natural thing. It’s nothing out of this world. Guys know what it is, so why hide it?”
Menstrual leave from the workplace is recognized in only six countries, including Taiwan, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, India and Zambia.
Zöe Chamberlain, service director at the PERIOD Menstrual Movement—a Portland, Oregon-based non-profit organization focused on ending period poverty by providing those in need with menstrual products—said there is a lack of resources to support those who experience severe period pain. This issue goes hand-in-hand with a stigma that suggests those who menstruate are often seen as being “less fit” for the workplace, especially when it comes to people who are transgender, she said.
“Menstruators who have to approach a cis-male boss with the truth that they are experiencing severe cramps and can’t work today are often looked at as if they can’t function normally on their period, which translates their under-supported, debilitating pain into a character flaw,” Chamberlain said. “And while yes, this pain can be so severe that you can’t function at your same usual level, the controversial aspect is saying that people are less capable because of their period, rather than because of the severe pain triggered by it.”
Because menstrual symptoms may vary from person to person, employers should not assume all people will be unable to work everyday of the month, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, based in Washington, D.C.
Martin said these assumptions are false and create stereotypes that harm women. It is important for workplace and public policy to accommodate the range of experiences among workers and ensure taking time off of work for physical needs will not threaten job positions, she said.