UNISON Report: Gender equality and dignity for females at work in Higher Education regarding menstruation needs

Written by Michelle Jarvis, Education Officer, UNISON

Background Overview

  • In the United Kingdom the taboo regarding menstruation and the stigma that affects women and trans men is breaking down.
  • UK Governments, media, work places and communities are openly debating that females in education are unfairly impacted by period poverty. This is the inability to afford sanitary products. The consequence of this is that many females miss days of education. This has an impact on female life quality, self-image, self-esteem and mental health and could have consequences that can unfairly disadvantage future career choice and gender equality and dignity in the workplace.
  • The research conducted by the grassroots group Women for Independence in Scotland revealed that nearly one in five women had experienced period poverty and resorted to using old rags and newspapers in place of sanitary products. This affected their education, health and wellbeing.
  • The research conducted by Plan International demonstrated that one in ten girls aged between 14 – 21 in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary products, while 49% have missed entire days off of school because of their periods.
  • The Scottish government is the first in the world to take action and make sanitary products available free to all of its 395,000 pupils and students at school, college and universities from August 2018. This will expand in 2020 to include leisure centres and libraries.
  • The issue of period poverty has driven UK communities to become active and this has led to the red box project, which currently provides free sanitary products to schools with 300 projects active currently. It has also led to a twitter movement called the pink protest #FreePeriods started by Amika George in April 2017.
  • The British government have acted and aim to address UK period poverty. On 13.03.19 the government announced a plan to provide free menstrual products in secondary schools and colleges in England from the next school year 2020.


Survey on Impact of Menstruation in British industry by DPG

  • A Survey in 2018 by DPG, of 2000 menstruating women, highlighted issues across British industries that can be addressed, to make working life better for many women.
  • 47% surveyed felt that there is a period stigma in the workplace, with 60% of women saying they felt unable to discuss menstruation with colleagues or managers. Owing to period stigma, 57% of women have felt they had to lie to their managers about the reason for sick days when sick for menstruation illness and 74% of women said they felt as though they must hide any sanitary products at work.
  • To overcome menstruation stigma in the work place the survey suggests, in consultation with Nadya Okamoto, Founder and Executive Director of charity PERIOD, Matt Jones, Media and Online Relations Manager at Search Laboratory, and Carly Stanforth, HR and Office Manager at marketing agency Further, creating Space for Conversation by:
  1. Equipping your workspace with adequate facilities for those on their period. The introduction of aids like heat pads and back supports can prompt this.
  2. Another way of fostering an open and approachable environment in this area is the provision of free sanitary products.

Higher Education taking action

  • There is a growing movement within UK Universities for providing free sanitary products for staff and students.

RVC UNISON member’s stories

  • I have spoken to a UNISON member of RVC staff recently who explained her experiences of difficulty in the workplace. Due to menstruation difficulties, my member described having to bring into work spare changes of clothes, along with many changes of sanitary products as heavy bleeding at unpredictable times occurred regularly for her. This has led her to feeling very embarrassed in the workplace, as she has experienced leaking through all spare sanitary products and final clean clothes changes. My member felt too embarrassed to talk to colleagues or managers over the situation, and has had to leave work early to go home and shower and change.
  • I have spoken to another UNISON member of RVC staff who explained her experiences of difficulty in the workplace. This member started her period and had no sanitary products. She had enough money to use the available sanitary machine. However this machine was faulty and took her money, without dispensing an item. This member felt very embarrassed about having to approach a manager over the situation. The manager told my member that she should have known not to use that particular machine as it is always faulty. My member found this to be an uncomfortable situation to have to be in at work.
  • UNISON feels that if free and discreet sanitary products were available at RVC, staff would not have to feel embarrassed in the work place. UNISON believes this will help promote good mental health at work for staff and will provide for medical disabilities relating to menstruation problems.
  • UNISON believes this would be a positive step in line help with the Athena SWAN at RVC and will benefit all women in the workplace, helping to bridge the gender pay gap by offering equal opportunities in the workplace for women.