Does PMS really make you less reliable?

pms at work

Image: the unsilenceable Olivia Pope from Scandal

Some time ago I spoke out strongly in a work meeting dominated by men. I was told not to be ‘hysterical’, which served to silence me very effectively.

My experience is not unique. My colleague was following in the footsteps of a long line of men, dismissing a woman through reference to her womb.

Tony Abbott is on record as saying that women will never approach dominance or equal representation in the workplace “because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons”. Translated, this means women are biologically inferior – and we should accept our status as the second sex.

Does this explain why we only have one woman Minister in the current Commonwealth Government? It is not because women are physiologically inferior, but because men in positions of power believe in the myth of ‘raging hormones’ and use it as a justification for keeping women down – or out.

Historically, women were excluded from attending university, and from training as doctors, because of the fear it would drain energy from their wombs. Thinking and menstruating were seen as incompatible. The end of menstruation did not bring equality and freedom. Menopausal women were encouraged by medical experts to lead a quiet and sedentary life, in order to “keep the mind in a calm and complacent mood”. They had to refrain from reading novels, sex, dancing, going to the theatre or to parties, for fear that this would “excite the nervous system and hence endanger the reproductive organs”.

Research has demonstrated that women perform no differently across the menstrual cycle.

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In the early 20th century, women were excluded from flying planes, for fear that they would crash in the premenstrual period, despite lack of evidence that this ever happened. More recently, the British Board of Boxing Control were successful in banning women from professional boxing, on the grounds that ‘many women suffer from PMT when they are prone to more accidents, (and) they are more emotional and labile (unstable), which makes them more prone to injury’.

This judgement was overturned on appeal, as it was based on prejudice, not medical evidence. But medical experts sometimes compound the problem. Katrina Dalton, the gynaecologist who first coined the term ‘premenstrual syndrome’ (PMS), claimed that women are more likely to fail exams, crash cars, have accidents, commit suicide, and perform poorly in the workplace, because of their hormones.

Would you promote a woman to a position of power if this was true?

It isn’t. There is no evidence for any of these assumptions. The research studies on which they are based have been demonstrated to be flawed. Subsequent research has demonstrated that women perform no differently across the menstrual cycle. Indeed, some women perform better premenstrually. Women have less accidents in the premenstrual phase of the cycle, and are far less likely to crash a car than men are, regardless of whether they are premenstrual or not. Insurance companies recognise this in the quotes they offer women.

The notion that menopause is associated with a dulling of the mind, forgetfulness, and loss of memory – as we have been told by medical experts in the past – is also a myth. The majority of women report feeling clear headed and confident at this stage of life. This is the time when they’re at the peak of their work performance.

Biological inferiority has historically been used as a justification for denying the women the vote, the right to own property, or the right to initiate divorce.

Menstruation and menopause have been associated with moodiness, suggesting that women might make unstable employees. Whilst some women do experience negative mood premenstrually, the majority report that it doesn’t affect them at work.

There is also little evidence for menopausal moodiness. Researchers report that the majority of women feel happy, fulfilled and relaxed at midlife. Indeed, rates of depression and anxiety fall with age: thus the notion of the menopausal woman being in a state of ‘psychological turmoil’ is a myth.

Biological inferiority has historically been used as a justification for denying the women the vote, the right to own property, or the right to initiate divorce. It has been used to make the very idea of a woman in a position of power or authority unthinkable. Today, women in Australia do have equal rights. But they earn less than men, and are in the minority in positions of power. This is not because of our aptitude, ability or interests. And it is not because of our physiology.

So if anyone ever calls you hysterical at work, or blames your hormones if you’re having a bad day, don’t be silenced. If anyone dared to say this to me today, I certainly wouldn’t be.

Jane Ussher is the Mamamia Network’s Scientist In Residence.

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