When Kate, a 33-year-old photographer and programmer in New York City, left an all-female company last year to become the only woman in an office with four men, she encountered an unexpected—or maybe all-too-expected—problem. “I started to think about tampons and pads, and where I would keep them, and if I don’t have them I have to go out and get them,” she said. “I work 10-hour days and rarely leave the office—that’s kind of how everyone in my company is, because we’re a startup.”
At her old office, Kate and her co-workers kept a filing cabinet full of menstrual supplies for anyone who needed them. At her new job, working in close quarters with her male colleagues at WeWork’s SoHo West location, there was no such menstrual arsenal, in the bathroom or elsewhere. Kate was sick of secreting tampons away in her bag, hiding them in her sleeve whenever she used the restroom, and worrying about getting caught in a spotty situation without any backups. “Women have been having periods every month for years and years in the workplace,” Kate said. For about five days out of every month, pads and tampons are as essential for most women as toilet paper and hand soap. Yet most office bathrooms don’t supply them.
Offices that provide a free stock of menstrual products in their bathrooms are making a small investment in their workers’ well-being that can yield disproportionate returns in morale and productivity. Studies have shown that people who see a woman with a tampon think worse of her and even avoid sitting near her—a dynamic with roots in misogyny, to be sure, but also the makings of a poor environment for office collaboration and mutual respect. (Inadequate menstrual supplies can even lead to a workplace biohazard, as in the case of one Redditor’s co-worker who bled onto office furniture almost every month, though that’s an extreme case.) I swear by my menstrual cup, but on one rare occasion that my period came early and I was caught at the office unprepared, I was glad to be able to grab a tampon from a drawer in the Slate restroom rather than stuff toilet paper in my underwear and work up the gumption to post a request on our women-only Slack channel or go from desk to desk asking female colleagues for a handout.
But as co-working spaces engage in an arms race of amenities to convince ever hipper companies to untether from old-school office setups, many have left their members to figure out menstrual supplies on their own. Washington, D.C.’s Canvas Co boasts on its website that “you won’t find any carpets, water-coolers or Ikea” there. You also won’t find any tampons or pads in the restroom. You will find free snacks, soda, beer, monthly catered lunches, and a ping-pong table. MakeOffices has locations in Chicago, Philadelphia, and D.C.; the chain will soon expand to New York. In addition to beer and wine, members get fresh fruit, granola bars, Red Bull, twice-monthly breakfasts, and occasional in-office massages from professional massage therapists—all free. Menstrual products are some of the only amenities behind a paywall: Unless an individual building management company decides to provide them to MakeOffices members, tampons and pads are only available from bathroom vending machines. Cove doesn’t offer menstrual supplies, though it does provide San Pellegrino, soda, snacks, and discounts at yoga studios. The Oficio website features a testimonial commending the space’s “rotating artwork” and “Zen music.” Members get free lattes, access to a fully stocked bar cart, and monthly catered lunches. If they bleed through their tampons, though, they’re out of luck.
Kate’s former co-working space (she recently left for another company) is owned and operated by WeWork, a chain with presences in 15 U.S. cities and 11 other countries. Each franchise is responsible for figuring out its own freebies: One D.C. location has menstrual supplies in the bathroom; at another, members can ask for one at the front desk, which also stocks floss and Kind bars. The San Francisco Civic Center location doesn’t have menstrual products in the bathroom, but elsewhere in the office, there’s free beer on tap and sponsored one-off amenities, like a cold-brew kegerator from TriNet. London-based developer Jenny Brennan says she “snapped” when she discovered that her WeWork location sliced fresh fruit for its water tanks and offered free mouthwash and beer, but did not make menstrual supplies available to workers. “I don’t need fruit in my water. I don’t need beer on tap. But if I’m bleeding, I need a sanitary product,” she wrote at Medium earlier this year. As for the mouthwash: “What companies are saying is ‘we know that bad breath can make you, or even a client, feel uncomfortable, so it’s a worthwhile investment to provide this for you, in case you forgot your own solution.’ Sanitary products are a similar investment in employee productivity and, I’d argue, a much higher priority one.”
When Kate made an online request for tampons and pads in the bathroom of her WeWork office, one of her office administrators—WeWork calls them “community members”—said that another New York WeWork had a tampon machine in its bathroom but that it was very expensive and might not work for the SoHo West location. Community members in the lobby and the fifth floor of Kate’s building kept tampons available by request behind their desks, but Kate thought that was too embarrassing and not a sustainable, helpful solution for an entire building full of people, especially when women with the lowest-tier WeWork membership don’t get any personal storage space. “It’s something that is as easy as getting a basket of tampons in the bathroom,” Kate said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s their job to buy [all] my tampons by any means, but it would be nice to have the convenience of something in case of an emergency.”
Some managers of co-working spaces have recognized the value of stocking menstrual health products. Austin, Texas’s Link and Minneapolis–St. Paul’s Coco offer free supplies, as does the Massachusetts-based Workbar and Grind, which has offices in New York and Chicago. NextSpace has several California offices and one in Chicago; the managers at each location decide for themselves whether or not their franchise will offer complimentary tampons and pads. Tiffany Jones, NextSpace’s operations manager, told me in an email that the company often waits to hear from workspace members before investing in a freebie. “If our community is asking for something, we do what we can to provide it (within reason of course; we have looked long and hard for rainbow breathing unicorns, but sometimes requests just can’t be met!)” she said. “We let the community dictate what they want to supply from us, rather than supplying what we think or assume they may want.”
Luckily, pads and tampons make for a far more reasonable request than rainbow-breathing unicorns. They’re relatively affordable in bulk and a primary example of a minor expenditure that can make a major statement about the importance of employee happiness. (The U.K.-based Tampon Club, which encourages people to start their own office menstrual stash, does a great cost-benefit analysis on this topic.)
Still, it may take an explicit demand to get male office administrators on board. A few years ago, Sabrina Scandar, 29, and her sister moved their small startup into a co-working office called LAB Miami, a space that shared bathrooms with other offices in a larger building. By the time LAB Miami moved into its own space with private bathrooms, Scandar had begun dating one of the founders, Danny, and helped him set up the new place. She found a major oversight. “They had a running list of stuff they still needed to buy, so I told Danny that he needed to add trash cans for the ladies’ room,” Scandar said. “He said something like, ‘Oh, what happened to the one in there?’ And then I had to explain that in addition to the one by the sink, they needed individual trash cans for the stalls.” Any person who’s never had a period would have a hard time anticipating that need.
So it would seem to follow that co-working spaces dedicated to women would be menstrual paradises. According to a representative from the D.C. office of Hera Hub, a national chain of women’s co-working spaces that boasts soft lighting, candles, and “spa water,” the D.C. location doesn’t provide menstrual supplies because Hera Hub shares a restroom with other offices. (That seems like the perfect opportunity to chat with facility managers and the other women who use that bathroom about leaving menstrual supplies in there for everyone.) But at PowderKeg, a workspace for female writers in Brooklyn, members get access to a “cozy napping area” and other basic amenities; plans for free cookies and a private chef are in the works. I asked co-founder and director Holly Morris whether PowderKeg offered tampons and pads as one of the office’s many perks. “Yes,” she told me. “Doesn’t everybody?”