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DIFF: Women should be encouraged to ‘understand and work’ with their cycle

  • 14/11/2022
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DIFF: Women should be encouraged to ‘understand and work’ with their cycle
There is a widespread lack of knowledge of women's menstrual cycle and how it impacts day-to-day life, so encouraging and allowing women to work with their cycles rather than against them will be vastly beneficial.

Speaking at the latest Diversity and Inclusivity Finance Forum (DIFF) leadership briefing, India Rakusen, creator of the 28ish Days Later radio series for BBC Radio 4, said that before she started trying to get pregnant she had a real lack of awareness about her reproductive system and her biology, and this was pervasive.

“I could not believe what I didn’t know. I felt shocked and embarrassed…I knew absolutely nothing about my own reproductive system. Nothing about my own biology. I had an idea that maybe I was a bit down before my period, but I didn’t know that this was because of a hormonal drop off, not a rise,” she added.

Before the start of a period, oestrogen and progesterone fall rather than increase, which can impact mood, and that oestrogen, the dominant hormone in ovulation, can increase energy and focus.

Rakusen said that the menstrual cycle can explain energy levels, mood, pain, sleep and focus, but there was a lack of awareness, not only amongst women, but also wider society.

She added that having women embrace their cycles rather than pushing through them could have multiple benefits for businesses and for individuals themselves.

“While the cycle doesn’t change the mental capability of a woman, it does enhance different brain functions. Having an ovulating woman in a pitching meeting is a great thing. Oestrogen is high, confidence goes up and ideas generation is strong.

“When women are menstruating it is often an extremely focused time, and a good time for deep thought and analysis. I’m not suggesting we make our cycles public information…but we can encourage women to understand them and work with them, not despite them.”

She noted: “Imagine if women were encouraged to understand their bodies and not be afraid of them, were never shamed into thinking their bodies were unknowable or unpredictable. Imagine if women felt safe at work and secure in their jobs.”

Rakusen said one way companies could do this was to offer free sanitary products in offices as this would allow women to feel safe and comfortable.

She cited her own example of coming on to her period in an office where she was being commissioned for work and having those products available meant she could carry on with the meeting, and continue contributing ideas.

“I had an absolutely great time and in that building that I was supported and wanted; I didn’t feel like a pariah for being a woman.”


‘Theory of hysteria still alive and well’

Rakusen said there were still widespread misconceptions about women’s pain and that they were class and racial overtones to this as well.

She explained that several studies had shown women’s pain is not taken as seriously as men’s, even if they had they reported the same intensity of pain. Women are also more likely to be prescribed psychotherapy when a man would be given a painkiller.

“The theory of hysteria still alive and well,” Rakusen noted.

Rakusen added that in the past, pain suggested you were more “high class, cultured and sensitive” and labour pain was “both dreaded and desired” by those in upper classes.

She also noted that during colonialism and slavery, enslaved women’s pain was minimised and women of colour to this day have problems getting their pain believed.

She noted that black women were more likely to have a hysterectomy as a “cure for pain” without other processes being sought out and were four times more likely to die in childbirth in the UK than white women.

Women are ‘not the more hormonally unpredictable’

Rakusen continued that women were “not the more hormonally unpredictable of the species”, as tests in 2014 had shown that while women have a cycle of hormones they were “very predictable”.

She added that the tests showed that men are “wildly hormonal” as testosterone is very reactive and spikes and crashes more unpredictably.

Rakusen said testosterone spikes and crashes were linked to “turbulent emotions, heroic actions, adultery, fertility, sexual prowess” and it could impact the outcome of medical testing.

She said the assumption of women being more “hormonally unpredictable” fed into medicine, noting that the majority of medical testing was done on men, and this meant there were still a lot of unknowns around how drugs interact with a woman’s biology.

“We do not know how the hormones of the female body or women on hormonal contraceptives react with really common drugs like antidepressants, and paracetamol. I imagine many of us…are taking a drug at least regularly that has never been tested on your body.”

From a legal perspective, she said that there were still examples of anachronistic views creeping into law. She cited the example of Sir Matthew Hale, who wrote treatises on what jurors should look for in sexual assault or rape victims, said husbands could not rape their wives and said aborting a foetus was a “great crime”.

Rakusen said that Hale’s treatise on how assault survivors should behave was still ingrained in people’s understanding today of victim behaviour, and that the “marital exemption” for rape was only lifted in 1981 in the US, over 300 years since Hale was alive.

Rakusen added that Hale was also quoted in the overturning of Roe versus Wade earlier this year.

She continued that whilst there had been some good progress, as a society “we are still in the grips of widespread misogyny”. “It is a path deeply worn,” she added.

Rakusen said that “assumptions are still made around the stale idea that women are a bundle of biology or that they have one purpose to raise children and care for them”.

“We send a clear message to women. This is women’s work, careers are for men, because men are not going to take time out to have a baby or be all hormonal and unpredictable or start struggling at work when they are not supported through the menopause,” she said.

She noted that menopause was a “brief period” that could be “successfully navigated with medical and personal support”, but still seems to be “used as a weapon to drive important experienced women out of roles and a nasty trick to remove the competition”.

Rakusen concluded that the benefits of supporting women can be “deep and rich for everyone”, and that doing research into pain, offering free products or making women feel comfortable would help them “feel confident and carry on”.

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