Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Menstrual Cycles

I was recently asked to be member of a panel to discuss issues around Women in STEM.  I've participated in several of these panels before and so I was expecting the normal topics: unconscious bias, impostor syndrome, work-life balance, family choices, sexual harassment etc.  As the panel was preparing for the event, a topic was suggested which I had never heard discussed at the public level before — menstrual cycles.

According to the Mayo Clinic 75% of women experience some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  PMS includes symptoms like mood swings, fatigue, irritability, and depression.  Up to 8% of women suffer from a more extreme reaction (premenstrual dysphoric disorder, PMDD) which includes symptoms like no interest in daily activities and relationships, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, possible suicidal thoughts, feelings of tension or anxiety, feeling out of control, mood swings with periods of crying, panic attacks, irritability or anger that affects other people, problems sleeping, and trouble concentrating.

I find it strange that while so many women suffer from these monthly symptoms — which effect our functionality, work, and relationships — this is something that people rarely talk about.  Two of the women on the panel admitted to having some of the more severe PMDD side effects listed above. One woman said that she simply couldn't think during certain times of the month: that her concentration and ability to focus were so bad that she felt the need to avoid colleagues or meetings so that no one would realize how incapacitated she was.  Another women admitted to taking medication one week a month to control her anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Everyone on the panel was mystified as to how to talk about this sensitive subject.  None of the affected women wanted special treatment or to use these symptoms as an excuse to do less work than others.  Yet, because this is a gendered problem (and a problem that not every female suffers from) they didn't feel comfortable explaining to managers, coworkers, or even friends the effect of their cycle.  Men and women on the panel who didn't experience PMS or PMDD also found it difficult to understand what a real impact this has on some of their colleagues.

We did include the topic on the panel. One of the women was brave enough to share her experience/struggles.  Our hope was that by having a public discussion we would raise awareness of the various ways women are affected by menstrual cycles.  Perhaps this can be part of a continued dialogue of the various ways that the female experience can be different than the male experience.