Everyone has “on days” and “off days” at work. But for some women, these “off days” follow a predictable pattern: Once a month, aches, fatigue and discomfort make it difficult for them to function at their highest levels. With just a handful of countries and private companies offering paid “menstrual leave,” most women who experience painful periods have little choice but to soldier on at work.
Most French adults believe periods can hinder women’s ability to perform at work, according to a YouGov/HuffPost France survey released last week. Those under the age of 24 were overwhelmingly in favor of workplace accommodations for menstruating women, including paid leave and access to free products such as pads and tampons. Neither accommodation is mandated in France or the U.S., though they are becoming more common.
The online survey of more than 1,000 French adults found that young adults are the most likely to support period-related policies and accommodations. Nearly 75 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 said they were in favor of menstrual leave, compared with 36 percent of adults over 54. And 82 percent of young adults said they believed periods could hinder women at work, compared with 53 percent of older adults.
HuffPost France spoke with several French women about period-related problems they face on the job. Their experiences illustrate the taboos and challenges alluded to in the survey that are leading to increased calls for governments and private companies to address this issue.
Women stick together. We try to lift each other up if we are feeling down. Kuraïchia
Christiane, a 34-year-old who works in a large newsroom, said she has become more comfortable discussing her period over the years. (HuffPost France identified the women it spoke to only by their first names.) But her openness has not erased the shame she feels when she attempts to clean her menstrual cup in front of co-workers in the office restroom.
“Even though using the cup makes it easier to understand my periods by helping me observe my flow, it is impossible for me to wash it in front of other people,” she said, noting that there are no private sinks in her office. “It makes me really embarrassed.”
Instead of rinsing the cup, as recommended, Christiane has started cleaning it with toilet paper instead.
Hygiene is also a concern for Bérénice, 25, who works as a florist in Paris.
“I constantly have my hands in flowers or in dirt, so they are not very clean, even if I wash my hands before emptying out my menstrual cup,” she said. “So, now I’ve switched to using tampons.”
Still, Bérénice does not feel the need to hide anything about her period at work. Her only colleague, who is also her boss, is a woman she feels comfortable with. “If I need [a tampon], she’ll go to the supermarket,” she said. “We talk about it freely as we go for lunch.”
Not everyone is so comfortable discussing their periods with co-workers. Sabrina, who works at a large fast-food chain, conceals her tampons in a pouch and avoids explicitly explaining why she sometimes leaves the register for frequent bathroom breaks.
“When I used to wear protective liners, I needed to go to the [bathroom] every two hours,” she said. She told her bosses she was having “female issues” or that it was “that time of the month” — which she said “was pretty awkward.”
Odile, an artistic director and model in her 20s, said her biggest fear is getting a period stain on her clothes during a photo shoot. She chooses her outfits carefully, favoring dark colors, and relies on colleagues to alert her if they see something.
“Between colleagues, we’ll keep an eye out for each other, and the women will tell each other if their [clothes] are stained,” she said.
Kuraïchia, who works in the marketing field, also relies on female colleagues who have formed their own ad hoc period support system in place of more formal policies.
“When you work in a small or medium-sized company and the bathrooms are in an open-space office, some male colleagues might think we’re sick when they see us going so often,” she said.
Men in her office have said “stupid things” about periods, leading women to take matters into their own hands.
“We support each other. If one of us is tired, another will take over. If a colleague is still in the bathroom and someone asks for them, we’ll say that they’re in a meeting, for example,” she said. “Women stick together. We try to lift each other up if we are feeling down.”