If men could menstruate, “TV shows would treat the subject openly. […] So would newspapers. […] And so would movies,” Gloria Steinem wrote in her famous essay If Men Could Menstruate. That was in 1978.
Today, newspapers do occasionally cover menstruation. But the subject is still taboo and fraught with controversy. Just take a look at some of the reader comments under recent news stories announcing that UK company Coexist is planning to allow its female employees to take time off during menstruation.
Coexist’s plan is good because it’s a step in the right direction. We finally need to acknowledge that women do bleed — and no, it’s not the blue liquid from pad commercials — and we need to acknowledge that period pain is a legitimate medical issue. You can’t be productive at work if you’re doubled over in pain. Admitting all this won’t set back women’s progress. It’s like saying that maternity leave somehow reverses our social gains.
But I think there’s a better solution. Companies, at least those in the knowledge economy, should introduce company-wide flexible working policies that cover all employees, regardless of whether they have kids or what their gender is.
Under these flexible working policies, employees shouldn’t have to ask for permission to work from home or vary their arrival and departure times. These policies should also include assessing staff performance based purely on results rather than face time.
That way, if a woman is in pain and can’t come in at all — or needs to come in later or leave early — she won’t have to invent excuses, or worse, endure great discomfort on her way to work or at her desk. Nor will she have to, on heavy flow days, rush to the office bathroom every half hour, worrying about staining her pants and dealing with the ensuing embarrassment.
But for all the talk about flexibility and the positive impact it has on productivity and a company’s bottom line, few employers actually practice it. It requires potentially expensive technology upgrades: laptops fitted with the necessary software for every employee as well as cloud solutions for storing information.
It also requires training staff, particularly managers, to focus solely on results. This one is tricky. Our brains are wired to think that if we see the person at work, they must be getting something done, never mind that they may be watching cat videos or reading their horoscope while feigning concentration.
And, of course, the other reason flexibility isn’t commonplace is that work-life balance is still largely seen as a women’s issue. Why? Because those advocating for it are primarily women.
Sure, there are men out there expressing support for work-life balance. One that comes to mind is Tim Ferris, author of the bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek.
Another one is Canadian journalist and author Steven Marche. “If men’s voices are absent from the conversation about family, we have, I’m afraid, only ourselves to blame,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 2013.
“A chorus of women demands maternity leave. Where is the chorus of men asking for paternity leave? A conversation about work-life balance conducted by and for a small sliver of the female population only perpetuates the perception that these are women’s problems.”
If we are to make any progress in presenting work-life balance and flexibility as the human issues that they are, we need more men, with and without kids, to speak up. Way more.