Episode 71: Our Bodies, Our Work

We still think of men as the normal people and men’s bodies as normal bodies, and then women represent this abnormal case that’s problematic for employers and society in general.
— Heather Dillaway

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…menstruation at work. How do you talk about it – if you talk about it?

“So I had this conversation with him – I said I’ve got this thing called endometriosis, it’s really terrible, and I’m probably going to have major surgery – and he was like huh, OK. He didn’t seem fazed by the fact it was about periods, to give him credit.”

But not all men are comfortable with the topic…

“It was like a ten member, all white, middle-aged male group of angel investors. I’m the only girl in the room, I was 22 at the time. And selling them on why period underwear is a good investment.”

And why women tend to go through menopause quietly…

“If we are acknowledging menopause we are acknowledging that aging happens and there is life after fertility and that’s still scary to us somehow.”

Coming up – our bodies, our work…we can’t divorce the two. Even if our workplace wishes otherwise.


There’s been quite a bit of public talk about periods this year. Female athletes have come out and talked about how having their period can adversely affect their performance. There’s an ongoing Twitter campaign to live tweet your period. And Donald Trump made his infamous blood-related comments to Fox journalist Megyn Kelly in a presidential debate this summer.

I’d been thinking about doing a show about menstruation – but I wasn’t sure. I felt a bit squeamish about it myself if I’m honest – and I also wondered whether there was enough to talk about with the intersection of periods and work.

And then I went on a business trip for a few days. And the day I landed, the very first day of the trip, I got my period. And I didn’t feel horrible – but I didn’t feel great either. And that was when I decided OK, I am going to do a show about this. Because women go through this bodily process at work every month for much of their lives that men do not. The experience can vary, of course – it can be absolutely fine, but it can involve bolts to the bathroom, severe pain, embarrassing leaks. And it is worth talking about. Because we are expected to perform no matter what’s going on with our wombs – and we are not expected to talk about it.

I knew I wanted to talk to a sociologist about all this. So I called Heather Dillaway. She is a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Michigan. She studies menopause experiences in particular and other aspects of living in a female body. She says ever since women started going out to work they’ve had to deal with menstruation quietly, so they can fit in…

“It’s important to remember that paid workplaces are pretty much modeled after men’s lifecycles and men’s bodies, and so women as paid workers are sort of foreign or abnormal to start with.”

She says everything from pregnancy to breastfeeding to periods – they mark women as outliers at work. People who things have to be arranged around. And for decades women put up with their role as the ‘other’ at work and the judgments that went with that. But today there’s a much stronger lobby for parental leave and the ability to pump milk in comfort – even in workaholic countries like the US. I told Heather I think breastfeeding has a lot of strong advocates…

“Yeah so you’re right, the things that have to do with early motherhood are getting a lot more positive attention lately and different groups are lobbying for workplaces to pay attention to breast feeding and to pregnancy and to maternity leave and they are having more success, and I think that goes back to the fact we are a pretty procreative country in terms of mindset. We value families and we value when women become mothers. We sort of expect women to become mothers and to prioritize it – so if any bodily processes are going to get attention in the workplace it’s going to be the ones that signify motherhood, whereas menstruation is sort of this process that happens across the lifespan, and it doesn’t result– it’s sort of the opposite of motherhood, it means motherhood isn’t happening, so it’s seen differently.”

AM-T: “Mmm, and frankly there’s disgust around periods that there isn’t around breastfeeding.”

“For sure. Yeah, it’s seen as dirty, it’s seen as unclean, it’s seen as something that is unhealthy and sick – when actually in reality it’s the opposite, it means that women’s bodies are actually working…so the cultural ideas around menstruation still suggest to us that it shouldn’t happen and that it’s akin to being sick.”

And of course if you live in a developing country there’s a high chance your period really is taboo – in some cases you may even have to live apart from the rest of your family during your period because you’re considered tainted.

Thankfully things are a lot easier in the west. Still, if those of us in white-collar jobs only deal with our periods in whispers…there are many more women who have a much more structured workplace and less agency…

“Yeah, and that’s a good reminder, right - we get stuck talking about professional workers who have a desk and a drawer they keep tampons in and they can easily run to the bathroom and deal with whatever menstrual hygiene issues they’re having, and that is not most workers, we have to think about how hard it is to hide things like menstruation when you’re a shift worker or hourly worker.”

So my theory about this whole topic is the younger you are the happier you are to discuss it and want it to be discussed more openly. The older you are the more likely you are to have been raised with the idea that you put up and shut up – and why do we have to talk about everything publicly these days?

And talking of young women, before we did the interview Heather Dillaway had sent me an article from the Daily Mail. It was about a few women in their late 20s and early 30s who have stopped their periods altogether. I knew about pills that ensure you only get a few periods a year…

AM-T: “But I’m not sure I’d ever read about stopping your period entirely unless you were doing something like climbing Everest, I mean I have heard about women who were doing very specific things and wanted to stop their periods to achieve something. But that was such an interesting piece about people who just feel that their period is such a hassle and that it’s impacting their career.”

“So yeah, recent articles like the one in the Daily Mail are talking about very career-oriented women who are taking medications to opt out of having periods. And the argument is that if they had a period that would slow them down at work and make them different and prevent them from the successes they can get if they take the medication So these kinds of conversations cement the idea that to have success in your career you have to get rid of periods, you have to not menstruate and really that means you have to be less like a woman.”

I posted that Daily Mail piece on the Broad Experience Facebook page a few weeks ago and it got a really big response. I’ll post the piece under this episode on the website so you can read it if you haven’t already.

Another thing I’d read about online while doing research for this show was that in some countries in Asia…women actually get days off for their period if they need them…

AM-T: “I feel sort of torn on that and I don’t know how - I wonder how American women would handle that if they were presented with that - or British women – anyone in the west where periods are less taboo than they are in other cultures. Because if you get days off, there’s a high chance I think that you’ll be judged – you’ll be judged negatively for taking those days.”

“Right and you do still see the same thing around maternity leave sometimes. If people take their entire maternity leave or family leave they may be seen as a lesser employee of sorts. The idea that women are bad if they do need a few days off stems from fact that we still think of men as the normal people and men’s bodies as normal bodies and then women represent this abnormal case that’s problematic for employers and society in general. On the other hand maybe not every single woman needs a day off every time she menstruates. I mean just the way we talk about it sometimes makes it seem like it’s more of a crisis than it really is. And it reaffirms this idea that menstruation is only bad and only causes problems – which it doesn’t.”

But if you’re one of those women who suffers each month it can disrupt your work life along with the rest of your life. Rachel Ben Hamou is British and she and her husband now live in LA - she works for a video games company.

She’s 33 now, but back when she was a teenager things started to go very wrong each month…

“I’ve always had painful periods since I was about 15, 16. With my period I’d pass out. On several occasions I knocked my head or injure myself, because I would faint with the pain. My mum took me to see various doctors, and they would say things like oh, it’s just period pain, nothing to worry about.”

Only when she was 23 was she finally diagnosed with endometriosis.

With endometriosis the lining of your womb also grows outside the womb – it attaches itself to nearby organs – in Rachel’s case it was on her bowel. The condition has a lot of nasty side-effects and a couple of them are severe period pain and heavy bleeding. There’s no cure, only different treatments.

Before she was diagnosed she used to miss days of college when the pain was really bad. Then she started work.

“My first real job I had a male boss who was actually very empathetic – and it was soon after I took that job that I got diagnosed. And so I kind of went into work, and I was very shell shocked by the diagnosis after suffering for so long, and I had a lot of emotional baggage around being told I was silly and to pull myself together for 8 years. So I had this conversation with him – I said I’ve got this thing called endometriosis, it’s really terrible, and I’m probably going to have major surgery – and he was like huh, OK. He didn’t seem fazed by the fact it was about periods, to give him credit.

But the challenge with that was when I had the time off for the surgery, and I think this is common from what I know…the odd day off here and there when you have your period is inconvenient, and depending on where you work can become a problem. For me it never has been. But the real bulk is if you choose to have the surgery, you can be off for 3, 4 weeks recovering from that kind of surgery.”

She was told surgery was the way forward for her. But it turned out to be a big operation…

“And they said of course we’ll keep your job open, the thing is we’re really struggling to keep up without you here, how would you feel about us having someone coming to do your job temporarily….and then maybe we can look for something else when you feel up to return to work. And they’d weekly ask me how do you feel about returning? I had no idea. And particularly after a bowel re-section for endometriosis you can’t leave the house because you can’t leave the toilet – so it’s incredibly impractical. So the result of that for me when I was ready to return, which was about 12 weeks later, they’d given my job to this person who was doing it temporarily…they found me another role, that really wasn’t as challenging, it wasn’t full time, it was only part-time, it was not as well compensated, and it wasn’t taking me on my career path.”

Now that said Rachel made the best out of that situation. The job she ended up in involved a lot of training, she found she really enjoyed it, ended up opening her owntraining company…and that’s part of what landed her the job she now does in LA.


Julie Sygiel is making a business out of periods. She’s the founder and chief creative officer of Dear Kate, a startup in New York that makes performance underwear. Back when she was studying chemical engineering at Brown University she took an entrepreneur class. Each team had to put forth a business idea and write a business plan…

“And so there were three girls in our team and we started brainstorming and somehow started talking about underwear and what happens to underwear during that time of the month and I should note that there was also a guy on our team as well so he was a really good sport when we were talking about periods, and we were like, wouldn't be so cool if we could create like the Wonder Woman pair of underwear so you put it on and you just feel amazing because they're super comfortable, they're super cute and you're not reaching to the very back of your drawer for your ugliest pairs, [‘granny pants’] yeah, and we weren't sure if it was possible to create these new fabrics but the goal is to create a fabric that’s stain releasing so you're never hand washing, it’s all machine washable, comes out good as new from the laundry and then also to have a thin, protective layer so be prepared for anything and never really be caught off guard.”

After college she began to turn that idea into reality. She eventually found her fabric and the company is now 6 years old. They make the underwear in New York City and ship all over the place.

Like any entrepreneur Julie was and still is looking for funding – and funders are a famously male dominated group…

AM-T: Who were you approaching, because we all know that the venture capital community is something like 95% male, or more…”

“Yeah, it was a very interesting dynamic because most of the investors we were pitching were men. I remember one evening where we went to pitch, it was like a ten member, all white, middle aged male group of angel investors. I’m the only girl in the room, I was 22 at the time I think. And selling them on why period underwear is a good investment.”

That group passed. But the company has raised $1.7 million dollars since then and they have both male and female funders. And some enthusiastic wearers…

AM-T: “I have a couple of pairs of your underwear, which are very nice. It’s a great idea. But they’re not cheap, right? The way I see it you have to be at a certain socioeconomic level to even consider buying a pair of underwear that’s more than $20. Do you hope to make them more available to everybody?”

“Absolutely. Right now we’re all manufactured in the US. All our technical fabrics are manufactured in the US. And while we’ve grown a lot over the last six years in the grand scheme of things we’re still a small company. The price point is directly reflective of the cost it takes to make a pair of underwear. Definitely the hope is as we grow the cost will come down. I would love to do a collaboration with Target or something. Sara Blakely did, she has the Spanx line, but she did Assets for Target. So that was much more accessible to a larger group of women.”

And thinking about all the women who rely on black knickers every month…well, at least most of us can still carry on with our lives… 

AM-T: “If you live in a developing country, actually menstruation is an economic issue. Young girls often don’t go to school because they’re branded as unclean. And the same thing can happen in some workplaces as well. Not all women make it to work during that time.”

“Right, I think the cultural experience of menstruation is so different in many parts of the world and so I can really only speak for my experience, but you know just the other day Isabella called me out in the office…”

Isabella is Dear Kate’s marketing manager…

“…because we’re six girls in the office and you know there are men who sit nearby, but I was like, does anyone have a pad? And I'm whispering and hiding it and she's like, dude, we're all about being bold and, you know, periods are not something that we should be ashamed of or hide, and she was like, flaunt that thing.”

AM-T: “How did you feel about that?”

“I felt she was exactly right. I felt that she was totally right. Because you know, what do I want my work place to be? I want it to be open and comfortable, and you know if I had a migraine headache or if I had food poisoning and I really felt bad, I'm not just going to keep that to myself, I'm going to explain it to the team and say like, hey, I'm not feeling well and I need to go home, or I need to just go take a minute, I'll take a walk or something. And so I think in a lot of workplaces you would never tell someone ‘I've got really bad cramps’, like I need to leave this meeting, you just say like oh I don't feel well. You know, why is it that we feel like we can't bring up periods, that we have to just pretend like it's not happening because we would be weaker or something. But the reality is that we as women do have these additional physical experiences that we go through and – not that every woman wants to tell the world. So it's not like you have to say, ‘hello I'm menstruating!’ But if you're someone who would like to be able to say, I've got really bad cramps today, can we push that meeting till tomorrow? or whatever, you should feel free to do that and it shouldn't be this super-secretive thing.”

And maybe some offices are going that way. Rachel Ben Hamou says she’d like to be that open at her workplace but she isn’t quite there yet. That said, her office is good when it comes to allowing her to take time if she needs it…everyone is self-directed…

“So there’s no one sitting here saying, what have you achieved this week? It’s up to you to be accountable. But depending on the role you’re in that can be problematic. My choice of role has been influenced by my health condition. At one point I was interested in doing something, basically training on a schedule – and if you have a whole class of people scheduled to turn up for you on the 21st you pretty much have to be there on the 21st…so if you get your period or are not well that’s problematic. I felt the risks of me not being able to meet those time commitments were too high. So I’ve tried to optimize around things so that isn’t the case.

She knows she’s lucky to be able to do that.

She’s taken measures to deal with her endometriosis that mean she suffers a lot less than she used to. And she thinks her workplace might just be open to more discussion about these kinds of things – even if it is mostly men… 

“The office where I am now there’s about a thousand people, and probably 900 of them are men, and about 700 of them are men under the age of 30. So lots of young men. What’s interesting is we have interesting discussions – we have a diversity mailing list and on that we had a discussion about people who were transgender, or didn’t identify as male or female, and whether we should have unisex toilets because of that. And the discussions that came up around that, including things around periods, you know, people saying, well I wouldn’t be comfortable if there were men in the bathroom and I needed to ask someone if they had a tampon, you know, these kinds of things came up, so I found that very interesting.”

So opening up about periods is one thing. But what about that process towards the end of the reproductive lifespan? There isn’t a live tweet your menopause campaign on Twitter. Heather Dillaway says people forget older women still have a lot going on with their bodies…

“Menopause is sort of like puberty - your hormones are changing, your symptoms might be a bit uncontrollable, and so menopausal women are dealing with irregular bleeding in the workplace, they might be dealing with heavy bleeding as well – they might be dealing with hot flushes, so there’s definitely symptoms that might be somewhat public sometimes, or at least might have to be dealt with on a daily basis and we should be talking about them – because if you think about middle aged women they might be at the prime of their careers and also going through menopause at the same time, so this is a reality, there are lots of workers who are going through menopause.”

And I was hoping to speak to a couple of them. I found one person I’ve interviewed for other stories in the past – she’d written a great piece on menopause at work for one of the women’s magazines. But she didn’t want to talk on tape about her own experience. Nor did a good friend of mine who’s gone through menopause younger than most – she’s in her mid-40s. She told me in an email it was wonderful not to have periods. She also said she felt very isolated as virtually the only person she knows around her age who’s gone through this. She had a hot flush at work recently and she did end up having a quick menopause chat with two colleagues – but then she worried she’d over-shared.

And if you think about the few female CEOs of big companies who are out there…they’re pretty much all in their 50s or 60s…so they have these demanding jobs and sometimes these demanding symptoms that go with menopause – and we don’t hear anything about how they handle it on top of their work… which I personally would love to hear about.

Heather says women’s squeamishness about discussing this is partly related to our society’s obsession with youth…

“As much as we’ve moved past this idea of older women as not worth much, menopause does signify that someone is aging and sometimes that equation means that someone is lesser – and so we think of women as reproductive and fertile and young, and if we are acknowledging menopause we are acknowledging that maturation or aging happens and there is life after fertility, and that’s still scary to us somehow, it’s still seen as negative and also because people don’t talk too much about menopause I think it’s actually hard for women to deal with symptoms in the workplace or in any public setting.”

As my anonymous sources can attest.

Doing this show has really made me want to do another show on women and aging at work. I did an episode on this fairly early on but I think it’s time I picked up this topic again and that menopause is part of the conversation this time. If you’ve been through menopause or are going through it and you’d be willing to come on the show and talk about how that’s all going down at work please get in touch. I’m at ashley@thebroadexperience.com.

Thank you again to all those of you who’ve supported the show either with a one-time donation or by becoming a monthly contributor – it really means a lot. If you’d like to become a supporter just go to the support tab at The Broad Experience.com.

As usual I’ll post links relating to today’s show under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. You can comment there or on the show’s Facebook page. And I’m @ashleymilnetyte on Twitter – without the hyphen.

Thanks for listening. See you next time.