Designing a positive workplace experience for women
Foreword: I need to start this with some clarification; I am going to speak about things like menstruation, menopause and endometriosis, and throughout I’ll mostly be saying woman/women. I do this for ease of writing/reading rather than because I am trying to collate the term woman and the term menstruation. I am aware there are people who do not identify as women who may menstruate and also that there are people who have hormonal issues and choose to discuss them as not exclusively female issues. Additionally, this article is about hormonal health and how that impacts workplace design. There are of course, many other issues that can impact workplace experience for women, but I am not looking into those at this point. Finally, if there is anything in this that you think I need to rethink, please do drop me a comment and I’ll do my best to educate myself.
I’ve been working on something at my current job and reading a lot about how female hormone health is making legislators start to rethink how workplace rules/regulations are built. I am no stranger to female hormone issue- both personally but also from a work perspective, having spend a fair amount of my career working with brands/organisations that had something to do with either female hygiene (tampons), fertility (nappies) and reproductive rights (fertility medication, condoms, one NGO). I was also lucky that most of these brands/organisations had chosen to respond positively to the groundswell in perceptions about how hormonal health for women is dealt with at all levels in our society (badly, if you want to know what I think).
At work, we are currently exploring how to make the physical space in which work happens a bit more “understanding” of the specifics of hormonal cycles and the changes inherent in hormone progression throughout a woman’s life. In plain English, we’re looking at whether our spaces are designed to make life easier for people who menstruate, deal with peri/menopause or are specifically going through fertility treatments, treatment for endometriosis. This is part of a larger push, to design a suitable workplace experience for women, looking at the full spectrum of physical and digital experience, the rules and allowances in place, as well as communication and community.
Before I go into some detail, it’s worth pointing out that throughout this and past projects, research we’ve done has only gone to deepen the knowledge that a large percentage of women feel their hormonal health will, at some point or another (and for some, on a regular basis) significantly affect their ability to do their job. A smaller percentage of the people we spoke to said they felt that dealing with hormonal issues at work was the equivalent of trying to do their job with a broken limb, and quite a few had considered leaving their job because they felt unable to perform basic duties.
The design of hormone-sensitive workplace experience — again, pretty pompous but you know what I mean, is incredibly complex, it turns out. From our current and past research, it’s clear that physical workspace design as well as the “regulatory” environment of most office-based jobs is not best suited to deal with the female hormone cycle. Here’s some examples:
- On the tangible front, insistence on open space design coupled with the persistence of taboos around menstruation makes it incredibly complicated to BE on your period at work. Everything from the position of toilets, to the design of toilets to the design of facilities in the toilets and the complete impossibility to carry menstrual products around in a relaxed way, makes having to deal with your period in the office a minefield. Period product design still wavers between “hey, let’s all be feminists so no need to make this anything other than bright pink” and “OMG, let’s pretend this is not a tampon and make it look like chapstick”. So, handling period or menopause-related products in the office is uneasy ,to say the least. I still have horror flashbacks to a specific day in the office, when I walked into an elevator while searching for my badge in my bag and a large, lilac coloured sanitary pad dropped from my bag onto the floor at the feet of one of our senior Business Managers. I don’t think he ever made eye contact with me again after that. He most surely did not bend down to pick it up for me.
- Beyond the basics of care, like free sanitary products in the bathroom, offices seldom cater to other symptoms of periods / menopause or specific conditions like endometriosis. Changing clothes or washing up after a hot flush are near to impossible to do as is trying to compose yourself after a meno-induced anxiety attack.
- On the less physical front, workplaces are still grappling with how to regulate for these type of situations. Are periods and menopause diseases and should they be treated as such? And if they are not, how is help expected to be provided? The problem with making communication and rules which address these issues head-on is that the narrative itself is not clear and not agreed for everyone, so while there may be well intentioned progress being made — like time off for heavy periods, the story being told may not necessarily be the right one (see below).
Let me explore that further.
When we were doing our research for the project, we asked people what they thought their workplace should provide to make periods/ menopause easier at work. In what was a heartbreaking find, most of them said it would help if people did not treat them like such shameful issues (so, open communication). But close behind were things like medical insurance provisions for menstrual/ menopause issues and access to specialised consultants.
The fact that open communication was such a big must on the list of those asked, turned out to be an interesting problem to address not only from an “internal comms” perspective but also from an HR point of view.
Another small interlude here: when designing for such complex issues, it helps to consider the entirety of the “system” instead of focusing on the user alone. Service design tends to focus on user needs and motivations, designing solutions which favor the user’s expected experience above everything else. However, there are ecosystems where the user’s experience is so intertwined with the “health” of the ecosystem that we need to inject a bit of business design into the equation. What do I mean? In the workplace, the needs of the employee need to be balanced against the need of the business itself. If the user is given too much leverage, this may result in the business being effectively unable to perform according to its set standards.
So, how do you talk openly about this? Is it a medical issue? Is it a “natural change”? We could only agree that THIS should not be embarrassing to talk about at work. But even then, to what level? Pretty much everyone we spoke to winced at the idea that people in the office should be okay with the sight of someone with period stains on their trousers/skirt. OTOH, everyone agreed you should be able to say you were on your period without being ostracised. The range in between those two is big.
Another example of the stuff you’d have to think of is around time off. Say we wanted people to be given time off for heavy periods, and this time would be capped at monthly levels because periods are monthly. There would be no objective evaluation of what heavy periods meant so decision on taking the time off would be exclusively left to the user. BUT. HR organisations don’t love this level of unpredictability when employing or interviewing. There are fiscal and financial implications. Depending on the number of days, it may prove to be less attractive to employ people who need this type of leave. Finally, there is a small possibility users “over claim” (yeah, I know, we don’t like to think about this but let’s factor that in too).
If we considered all of the above, ready-made solutions like period/menopause leave would need to be made incredibly specific — with clear guidelines for number of days, rules for claiming, repeat claims, etc. just to make the system (i.e. the business) continue to operate the same.
What about medical insurance? For symptoms of the menopause — like anxiety, palpitations, etc, there was no way for the workplace to help unless they were “medicalised”, and by that I mean that they were turned into a medical issue the workplace provided medical insurance for. And then, if the symptoms where a medical issue, had we not turned something that was a natural process of a human body into something that needed to be fixed? Was this us making something natural into something problematic?
I’m sorry to say there is no conclusion to today’s musing on workplace experience for women viewed through the hormonal health angle. Our project is still going on, our medical insurance has been changed to include more things, we have some internal comms campaigns and we’re working on setting up better spaces for people to manage their symptoms.
But it’s worth noting that not everyone agrees with these all the time. The need for equivalency with men’s experience, for instance, is always there. There will always be someone who says “what about men?” and there will always be someone who thinks “men are not so high maintenance”. Because the workplace is a complex system with an incredible number of interested users / actors. But also because we haven’t, as a society, figured out how to speak and design for these things. There are corporate and national initiatives looking at making changes (Spain introducing period leave, many many companies including HRT on their medical insurance, etc). There’s also lots of people who believe these will not work. But, as always with design, we should look to these as proof of concept tests which will guide us to the ideal workplace experience for women. Eventually.