“In order to have a fully equitable society, we need to have laws and policies that take into account the fact that half the population menstruates.”
Periods happen at work. It may seem obvious to say so; however, evidence of menstruation in the workplace—a normal biological function experienced by about six million working Canadian women, trans, and non-binary folks—is rarely seen.
Access to free menstrual supplies is getting traction in policies and activism around the world. In February 2020, the Scottish Parliament advanced legislation, with no opposition, for free universal access to menstrual products, which would make Scotland the first nation to provide tampons and pads for free. But Scotland might not be the only one for long. Sweden’s Left Party has also called for menstrual equity.
It is time for Canadians to demand universal access to menstrual supplies.
In the average Canadian workplace, there are but a few physical structures (menstrual supply disposal bins and coin-operated dispensers) and virtually no policies with the express intent of supporting menstruation. In 2019, the Canadian federal government began the opening steps to make menstrual supplies free in federally regulated workplaces drawing attention to the issue of period inequity in the workplace. This conversation is long overdue. The menstruating body, including the labour that women, trans, and non-binary folks engage in to keep menstruation hidden at work, has been made invisible at work. This needs to change.
What is menstrual equity and what does it have to with work?
The push to support menstruation at work is part of a larger global movement for menstrual equity (also called period equity), a relatively new term that entered the lexicon in 2017 after being coined by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf in her book Periods Gone Public.
Period equity is about menstruation without shame. It means treating periods with the support, dignity, and services afforded other normal excretory functions. Period equity is the antithesis of the stigma and shame that is so prevalent around menstruation. It also means understanding the deeper social structures that shape our cultural responses to periods at a given place, time, and context. Race, class, cultural identity, and many other factors shape how inequity intersects with menstruation. Not all periods are created equal and there is no one size fits all solution—however, making sure people who menstruate have what they need when they need it and that what they have access to is safe and good for them and the environment, is a pivotal starting point.
In Canada, period poverty remains an unrecognized social issue that deeply impacts the lived reality of many marginalized groups. Both disposable and reusable period products are costly and are not always widely available. Further, reusable products may not be an option for those in precarious housing situations and those who do not have easy access to wash facilities. A recent study, conducted by Plan International Canada, found that for women under 25, “one-third had struggled to afford menstrual products” at some point in their lives. Similar studies, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have revealed comparable results.
The movement to end period poverty in Canada has been profoundly shaped by the work of a range of grassroots organizers and activists and social organizers in the not-for-profit sector. The United Way’s Period Promise campaign, formerly called Tampon Tuesday, has played a pivotal role in mobilizing individuals, unions, businesses, and organizations across British Columbia to collect period supplies for distribution to shelters and food banks. Many organizations and businesses have signed the United Way’s Period Promise, thereby pledging to provide freely available menstrual supplies in their restrooms.
Until recently, period supplies in Canada were taxed as luxury items. The federal government removed the tampon tax in 2015. More recently, several provinces and cities (British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Toronto and Whitehorse) have passed legislation to make menstrual supplies free in public school restrooms. These changes highlight a growing awareness of period inequity in public spaces more generally. Though we have seen significant gains in recent years, many gaps still exist, and the workplace is a key site for bringing about change as we spend so much of our lives at work.
Free the Period Supplies at Work!
According to Statistics Canada, women make up 47 percent of the Canadian workforce. Canadians spend a significant portion of their daily lives at work and a significant amount of time at work menstruating. Yet, the average workplace does little to reflect this reality and women pay the price—both literally and figuratively—for such neglect. If you do not have a period supply at hand, in most workplaces, you are required to use coin-operated dispensers or go off-site to purchase supplies. In addition, consider how shame and stigma contribute to the ongoing silencing of women expressing what they need; this leads to emotional stigma and shame, physically being excluded from one’s workplace, and in some cases, more severe health and safety risks.
Speaking from experience, none of us have ever worked in a workplace with free period supplies provided in the washrooms. On more than one occasion, we have had to leave the workplace to buy pads or tampons at a store off-site. And what happens if women are unable to leave work and go to a drug store or pharmacy? As we have found in our research, women commonly make an emergency pad with toilet paper. This is a temporary and not ideal solution, as it can leak.
These kinds of makeshift solutions are commonplace and are further exacerbated by social conventions that prevent people from asking for what they need publicly. Again, speaking from experience, we have all asked a coworker in private for a pad or tampon when in need. Another common solution in such situations is wearing products longer than recommended. This means that women, trans, and non-binary folks, put their short- and long-term health and safety at risk if they wear a product for too long, which can result in toxic-shock syndrome or other reproductive health system issues.
Policy, Period Equity, and Workplace Regulations
Workplace restrooms are governed by federal and provincial labour codes that outline the equipment and supplies that employers are required to provide for their employees. Regulations specifically call for toilet paper, soap, wash water, hand towels, and even urinals in the men’s restroom; however, they fail to mention menstrual supplies. This notable absence tacitly places the burden, cost, and struggle to manage menstruation solely upon the individual.
Looked at from another angle, employer-provided restrooms are currently regulated so that men find everything they need to conveniently manage their basic bodily functions without needing to bring money or their own supplies. For women, trans, and non-binary folks, in terms of menstruation, the restrooms are not so accommodating.
One solution to this inequity is to amend occupational health and safety codes to include the provision of tampons and pads. In 2019 the federal Labour Ministry began the process of amending the labour code to require menstrual supplies in federally-regulated restrooms. Because the federal labour code provides guidance to the provincial codes, we hope that provinces will follow suit.
British Columbia’s Worksafe regulation follows the pattern of requiring everything in the restroom except menstrual supplies. However, there is one important difference between BC’s workplace regulations and those of other provinces. BC Worksafe regulations includes clause 4.85(3)(c) that states all employer-provided restrooms must be supplied with everything necessary for their use. This wording captures menstrual products and implies employers should be stocking restrooms with free-to-use tampons and pads or else be found in contravention of the regulation.
Optimally, all workplace restrooms should have a supply of menstrual products. Doing so supports trans men and non-binary individuals, as well as men in need of a menstrual product to support their co-worker or family member. Further, visible and available menstrual supplies normalize menstruation for everyone.
Many of us take for granted the fact that the right to take bathroom breaks had to be fought for through labour action. Further, if we employ a gendered lens, access to space and time for pumping breast milk came about through labour action as well. We argue that menstruation is no different. We won’t see change if we don’t push employers to acknowledge menstruation at work. Policy is key to this change.
A society that embodied period equity would be different from the one we have now. Workplaces would provide a range of period supplies in all restrooms for free. But it would also be so much more—things as simple as additional bathroom breaks to manage period flow, and even access to period leave due to cramps, to broader discussions about peri-menopause and menopause (both of which are part of the menstrual cycle). We are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of what would make work a better place to be for folks who menstruate.
Free period supplies at the workplace is “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of rectifying an outdated and harmful social ethic that compels individual women to “manage periods at work,” rather than pushing organizations, institutions, and companies to adapt to and support the natural functions of women’s bodies. You have to look really hard to find periods at work, because we (people who menstruate) are taught to tiptoe, whisper, and be embarrassed about what we need.
No more hiding, no more whispering. The time for change is now.
Lisa Smith is a Faculty Member and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Douglas College. Her areas of research expertise are sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, and community-engaged sociology.
Selina Tribe is an Instructor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Douglas College. She played an important role in getting free menstrual supplies into school restrooms across British Columbia, and leads the charge on policy change around this issue throughout Canada.
Ana Brito is an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University, currently studying Geography and Sociology and working as a Project Director at the Menstrual Research Group and IMPACTS. She is interested in furthering discussions addressing sexuality, feminism and inequality.