I got my intrauterine device around lunchtime on a Friday. While the whole thing — inserting the speculum, placing the IUD, lots of deep breathing — only took a few minutes, it still managed to put me squarely out of commission. I had to spend the rest of the day lying down on my couch, I explained to my boss:
That exchange — telling my manager the precise reason why I would not be online that afternoon — made me feel especially lucky to work where I do: on a woman-led team that talks openly about the various personal problems that inevitably get in the way of the work day.
At my previous job, where I had a male boss, and a male boss’s boss, I probably wouldn’t have offered up the whole story. I either would have returned to work, white-knuckling my way through to 5 o’clock, or offered some vague, heavily-fudged version of the truth: “I have an appointment out of town,” maybe, or “I’m sick.”
If you’re a woman in the workplace, chances are you’ve got a story like mine: that one time — or, more likely, the many times — when having a woman’s body complicated your day on the job. Maybe you bled through your dress on your period. Maybe you couldn’t find a place to pump. Maybe you had cramps so intense that you had to leave work early, muddling your way through some excuse.
We asked our readers to share some of their memories with us. They’re teachers, Army Rangers, chemists, graduate students, HR reps — but their stories boil down to the same frustration: In a workplace built for men, it can be tough, sometimes, to be a woman.
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“I have an incredibly heavy period that is unmanageable even with hormonal birth control. I currently use a menstrual cup that must be emptied every four hours and wear Thinx underwear on my heaviest days, but sometimes it’s not enough. One day, I was teaching a class of 12-years-olds and heard giggling from behind me as I was writing on the board. I quickly realized there was a large red stain on the back of my pastel yellow skirt and panicked.
At first I got flustered, but I took a step back and decided to make it a learning experience. I excused myself and changed into a pair of jeans that I keep in my car for emergencies, then came back in to chat with the kids. Many of them were aware of what had happened, but a few were afraid I was ill or hurt. The discussion was a little difficult for me, but I think I managed to keep my cool.”
“When I went through early menopause, I had hot flashes that turned my face maroon and made me sweat dreadfully. I worked as a pre-nursing student adviser, and I had to wrestle the phone away from one student who tried to call 911 when I had a flash during her advising session. My (younger, female) boss threatened to terminate me if I didn’t get ‘chemical help’ for the hot flashes, because I was ‘creating a disturbance’ in the department.”
“The Army’s convoys and foot patrols are simpler for the men — ‘piss bottles’ can be used while behind the wheel, and guys can relieve themselves while taking a knee when they come to a stop. But women ... you can’t exactly pull over to pee on a stretch of highway known for IEDs or in downtown Baghdad. You can’t drop your trousers behind just any shrub in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, either. Squatting is no picnic with more than 25 pounds of body armor, ammunition and other gear on your torso. It’s also hard to duck incoming rounds when your pants are around your boots and you are straddling a self-made puddle. But if you think I would have traded it ... nope.”
“A few weeks after my oldest daughter was born, while I was in grad school, my very kind (female, mother of teenagers) officemate made a gentle comment that I had leaked milk through my shirt. I was wearing heavy-duty nursing pads, but they must have slipped a little, and I’d entirely soaked the front of my shirt. I was grateful that she was the person who said something (as opposed to my adviser) but also I was mortified as I tried to remember who might have seen me previously. In the short term, it made me more paranoid about always being prepared for any kind of bodily malfunction. In the long term, it’s made me more forgiving of other people’s messes.”
“I work in a busy restaurant where heavy lifting is a daily part of the job. One day on a double shift I started having some discomfort on the right side of my lower abdomen. As the day progressed, the pain increased and was sharp and stabbing anytime I moved the pelvic region of my body. I started getting hot and cold flashes and felt light-headed. Unfortunately, in the service industry, if you don’t get your shift covered, then you are going to have to work it, especially if the reason you have to leave is ‘woman problems.’ I kept pushing through until around 10 p.m. when I paid someone to cover for me. Turns out a fairly large ovarian cyst had burst on the first shift. The doctor was surprised I was able to keep working given the size of the cyst and typical pain that occurs when they burst.”
“A classic story, but only because it is so tragically common. My period came early, and I only realized I was bleeding when I felt the blood running down the side of my leg, threateningly close to reaching the floor beneath me. I ran to the bathroom: There were no sanitary products (paid, or free). None. I ran to the next bathroom: no sanitary products. All I could do was stuff some loo paper in my underwear to try and soak up the blood and run to the nearest pharmacy to buy tampons. It took me 30 minutes to get a tampon. It may not sound like long, but it felt like it: Adrenaline rushing, my body trembling, my mind wondering when I would start leaving a trail of blood on the floor behind me. I felt so much shame — and all because I am a woman with her period, and bathrooms are not properly equipped for us.”
“I was nursing a baby and did not have a private office. I had to go into a printer room to pump milk. It was startling when printers began printing, and I risked someone walking in to get printouts. It was that or the bathroom floor. A few colleagues knew. In subsequent jobs in HR management, I ensured there was a private room for moms.”
“When I was still working in a chemistry laboratory, 10 to 20 years ago, it was often difficult to find a properly fitted lab coat (and sometimes it was a challenge to find smaller gloves and safety glasses as well). The standard issue, default lab coat was big and bulky, clearly designed with men in mind. Even if you sized down, the coat wasn’t fitted, and the sleeves were way too long. This presented a safety issue: If you’re working in a lab, you really don’t want to have a gigantic sleeve interfering with your work, knocking vials over, or getting caught in equipment. I no longer work in a laboratory environment, but that memory has stayed with me. I believe that now there are lab coats more widely available in a variety of fits and sizes.”