If you close your eyes and imagine a “perfect worker,” what do you see? Is it someone focused, dedicated, productive? Is it someone that never calls in sick, or never puts their personal life above their work life? Is it someone who gets a period?

If I lost you with that last question, hear me out: when a workplace emphasizes productivity over wellbeing, or frowns upon people calling in sick, where does that leave people who menstruate?

Studies show periods can be as painful as a heart attack, and one in five women experience menorrhagia, or heavy menstrual bleeding. Add to that other symptoms like fatigue, headaches, joint pain and more, and it’s overwhelmingly clear that some people who menstruate really need to rest on their period. To accommodate this, a small number of progressive workplaces have adopted specific policies like menstrual leave.

But in working cultures that consider calling in sick or showing vulnerability a sign of weakness, everyone — menstruators and non-menstruators alike — is put in a difficult position. Hide your very human needs and move ahead, or voice your needs and risk professional backlash. 

Consider menstruators to be a canary in the corporate coalmine. Menstruation is a normal part of life for roughly half of the population. And since it happens more often and more regularly than your annual flu, or parental leave, the extent to which your workplace is willing to accommodate menstruation can be considered an indicator of how your workplace values the physical wellbeing of its workers. Simply put, if those who bleed are struggling, chances are everyone else is hurting too.

This goes beyond the well-documented ways that physical workspaces do not welcome certain bodies (think cold offices or ill-fitting PPE). And it’s not just about menstrual leave policies either. This is about workplace culture and how the value framework that shapes our working lives can come from a deeper and more underhand place. One that can be hostile to menstruating bodies, and everyone else as well.

Masculinity Contests

In 2018, an academic publication called the Journal of Social Issues published a special issue entirely dedicated to one concept, something called Masculinity Contest Culture (MCC). A MCC is a kind of workplace culture that rewards traditionally masculine qualities like competition, dominance, and strength. 

“In the workplace, historically a male domain, masculine norms can become organizational norms, defining what it takes to succeed (e.g., putting work above family),” reads one of the articles in the Journal. The authors categorized the attributes of a MCC within four themes: “show no weakness,” “put work first,” “strength and stamina,” and “dog eat dog”.

So, imagine working in an office with a culture like this on the first day of a rough period. If you tell anyone you’re suffering that day, you’re showing weakness. If you call in sick or duck out early, you’re not putting work first. If you ask for an extension on a deadline, your “strength and stamina” could be called into question. And if you seek out support from your colleagues? Well, helping others might be discouraged in a “dog eat dog” atmosphere. 

It should go without saying, whether or not you menstruate, a set of cultural norms like these is incredibly detrimental to workers. The expectation that workers of any gender should disregard their needs in order to be more productive is dangerous.

The Making Of An Ideal Worker

Menstruators are the canary in our proverbial coalmine because they’re hit even harder by the consequences of a culture that esteems a one-dimensional, masculinized version of a professional, at the expense of that worker’s health. But prioritizing well-being over work can be a mark against other employees, too, and if your needs are considered distinctly “feminine” (or they don’t conform to the narrow categories defined above) then that backlash could be compounded.

An MCC is, as the name suggests, rooted in traditional—and toxic—masculinity. But it can also shape-shift into something more ubiquitous, and insidious. Another key attribute of MCCs is that they can veil their gender-based origins, which also makes them difficult to identify and subvert. 

“To justify their legitimacy, the norms’ origins in masculinity may be obscured,” explain Jennifer Berdahl, Peter Glick, and Natalya Alonso in one article in the Journal. “For example, prescriptions to put work first become portrayed as gender-neutral “ideal worker” norms. Therefore, masculinity contest norms need not directly reference “manhood,” nor are their demands restricted to male employees.”

In other words, the traits valued in a Masculinity Contest Culture might not explicitly mention masculinity, bolster all men, or sideline all women. On the surface, it might not correlate to gender at all. This ubiquity forces those that don’t (and cannot) conform to its “ideal worker” prototype to engage, unawares, in a contest that they cannot win. 

Other studies in the journal support this point. One, titled “Toxic leadership and the masculinity contest culture: How “win or die” cultures breed abusive leadership,” demonstrates that when workers identified their workplace more strongly with the characteristics of an MCC, there was higher burnout, turnover, stress and work-life conflict experienced amongst workers of all genders.

They found that even when an organization had a policy in place for family leave, “informal [workplace] norms clearly communicate that taking leave scuttles a career,” meaning workers simply using an existing family leave policy may be perceived negatively. This study also notes that even expressing a commitment to caring for a family member is discouraged in workplaces they observed “as people seek to prove they are “ideal workers” who let nothing come before their work commitments.”

Combating MCCs With Organizational Justice

How can workplaces counter a masculinity contest culture? According to Dr. Angela Workman-Stark, associate professor of organizational behaviour at Athabasca University and one of the authors in the Journal, creating a culture of fairness is the answer. 

Her study on masculinity contests in policing examined the power of organizational justice, a concept which refers to employees’ perceptions of fairness in the workplace, to disrupt masculinity contest culture. 

She found a connection between the intensity of the masculinity contest culture and the inclusiveness of leadership. Where MCC reporting was high, teams had lower psychological well-being, higher turnover and incidents of harassment. And where MCC reporting was low, teams were found to have “good, fair, inclusive leaders who promote a very safe work environment where people can speak up and share their ideas and their concerns.”

Imagine how fairness could transform our workplaces. If fairness is an organizational standard, then policies that are in place to accommodate only a certain group, like menstrual leave, might not provoke such charged debate. If the psychological safety of the workforce is seen as necessary to the success of an organization, dog-eat-dog style competition would be an obvious threat to collective success. And, ultimately, if fairness is the norm, rather than dominance, there is no need for any worker to suppress physical or psychological needs in the name of their career.

People First, Employees Second

As long as we are working in a culture that connects menstruation with womanhood, womanhood with weakness, and weakness of any kind with the idea of a sub-par worker, menstruators are in a precarious position. People who bleed are forced to conform—with their identities, their needs and their physical bodies—to a very limited archetype. An archetype that is restrictive and damaging even for non-menstruators.

Whether it’s the common cold, emotional vulnerability after a rough week at the office, or Aunt Flo paying a surprise visit right before an important presentation, we are all people first, and employees second. And our workplaces, and workplace cultures, should be built as such. Period.