How do scientists in polar research deal with periods?

A new workshop is seeking to help women working in the Arctic and Antarctic to deal with menstruation.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of period pads and tampons.jpg
Representational image of period pads and tampons.

Liudmila Chernetska/iStock 

Fieldwork in the Arctic or Antarctic is complicated enough without having to deal with periods. When it comes to polar research the subject of menstruation is not often discussed. But it should be.

Now, the UK Polar Network (UKPN), a body which organizes skill development workshops and education and outreach opportunities for early career polar research scientists, is looking to do something about it through a new workshop.

This is according to a report by the BBC published on Friday.

Feeling scared about discussing periods

"I've had so many of my friends and my peers come and say, 'God, I couldn't talk to anyone about this; I felt so uncomfortable; I felt scared at times'," told the BBC Ellie Honan, a polar scientist herself and co-president of UKPN.

"The reason that we want to bring these topics up, as simple and as basic as they might seem, is because historically toileting has actually been a barrier for people entering into fieldwork."

Periods are a matter of fact for all young women but somehow the subject still remains taboo. The UKPN’s workshop seeks to remove barriers to getting women in polar research the menstruation support they need to thrive in extreme conditions.

"Knowing where to go to the bathroom, and knowing where to change a tampon, and how to do that in a remote environment, shouldn't be hard,” added Honan.

Without the new initiative there may be less women joining the Arctic and Antarctic for important missions they can contribute much to.

"I wonder if people don't do fieldwork and don't do science because they're worried about the taboo things, the things that people don't talk about," told the BBC PhD student Phoebe Noble.

"When I was 13, at school, you'd be smuggling your pads to the bathroom because you didn't want people to know that you're on your period. And then you think about going into the field where you don't know what conditions you're going to have, so having an open discussion… is really important."

A workshop geared towards both men and women

The workshop is geared towards both men and women, offering the same resources to polar scientists regardless of gender.

"Having men and women in the room when talking about things like menstruation in the field has been really useful so that I can understand as a male colleague how to support teams and how to be a better leader," told the BBC Andrew McDonald, a PhD student.

So far, the workshop has been very well-received by scientists who praise the UKPN for its efforts to create a safe and healthy environment for women to thrive in.

"It's been eye-opening," PhD student Maria Stroyakovski told the BBC. "The insights that we've had, especially as women on this course, have been invaluable in pushing us a bit further to the frontlines of actually going on these expeditions."