Illustration: Ashley Siebels
A new workplace discrimination lawsuit is deciding whether or not women can be fired for menstruating on the job.
Last month, Alisha Coleman filed a federal appeal to fight an earlier decision by a district court in Georgia that tossed out her lawsuit against her former employer, the Georgia-based Bobby Dodd Institute, in which she alleged that she was unlawfully fired for experiencing a sudden onset of her period at work, a pre-menopausal symptom that was out of her control.
Coleman had worked for Bobby Dodd as a 911 call taker for nearly a decade when she got fired in April 2016. In the appeals brief that the American Civil Liberties Union filed on her behalf, Coleman said she had communicated her pre-menopausal condition to her employer, but the company was unsympathetic to her plight. Coleman said she was fired after she had two incidents of accidentally leaking menstrual fluid in the office. The first time it happened on an office chair, Coleman received a disciplinary writeup and was told by management “that she would be fired if she ever soiled another chair.” The second time it happened on a carpet, Coleman said she cleaned the stain with bleach and disinfectant but still got dismissed.
Coleman was told she was being terminated because she didn’t “practice high standards of personal hygiene and maintain a clean, neat appearance while on duty,” according to the brief.
Judges in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia ruled in June that the company had a right to fire Coleman “for being unable to control the heavy menstruation and soiling herself and company property,” because Coleman hadn’t proven that a male colleague with a similar condition, such as incontinence, would have been treated differently, according to the ACLU brief.
But to the ACLU who is representing Coleman in her federal appeal, the cause for dismissal is an unreasonable, illegal policing of women’s bodies.
“Federal law is supposed to protect women from being punished, harassed or fired because of their sex, and being fired for unexpectedly getting your period at work is the very essence of sex discrimination,” Galen Sherwin, the Senior Staff Attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, said in a statement. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, any kind of discrimination that is “because of sex,” including “related medical conditions,” is prohibited.
In its defense, Bobby Dodd said that the company “followed proper protocol and went the extra mile to avoid dismissal in this case, as we would for any of our employees.”
Menstruating workers are stigmatized
For Coleman, her firing not only caused her to lose a job she said she “loved,” it also was a moment of public humiliation that spurred her into action. “Every woman dreads getting period symptoms when they’re not expecting them, but I never thought I could be fired for it. Getting fired for an accidental period leak was humiliating. I don’t want any woman to have to go through what I did, so I’m fighting back,” she said in a statement.
She’s not alone in worrying about her period at work. Menstruation is an everyday yet intimate bodily occurrence that workers around the world are stigmatized for experiencing. In 2015, fertility app Clue found that 18% of women in the U.S. have missed work out of fear that someone might find out that they are having their period. In Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore, the number of employees who have missed work due to period fears rises to more than 90%.
Although certain countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have paid menstrual leave, the lengths that menstruating workers have to go through to get this leave demonstrate how menstruation is still a symbol of shame. In certain parts of Indonesia, for example, menstruating workers will forego their legal right to paid menstrual leave, rather than “submit themselves to humiliation” of having to prove that they’re having their monthly cycle.
Female employees already have their outer bodies —from hair to weight and voices— judged and policed in the workplace. If Coleman’s case fails, advocates say it will serve as proof that employees’ inner bodily functions are allowed to be policed by employers, too.