Women have been working on the ground in Antarctica for over 40 years. Yet they only make up 25% of Australian Antarctic program expeditionaries. Despite decades of progress, historical issues of sexism and gender bias persist in extreme field environments set up for men.
Menstruation management, in particular, is an overlooked challenge for women working in Antarctica and other extreme male-dominated environments.
If we want to build a diverse and inclusive polar workforce, we must openly and willingly address the challenges that women, trans and non-binary menstruators face in the field.
Who will work in Antarctica?
Over the decades, the toilet has been the primary means for humans to control who has access to extreme environments. For example, until the late 1970s, women were told that they could not work in Antarctica because there were no facilities for them on the station.
Women were also excluded from space travel because their hormonal bodies were deemed too unpredictable by male NASA leaders.
Sally Ride’s 1983 mission on the space shuttle Challenger marked a new era of progress for women’s access to field work in Antarctica. If women could go to space, they could definitely go to Antarctica! It was around this time that the British, American and Australian National Antarctic Programs began allowing women to do fieldwork in Antarctica.
Ride’s mission also exposed NASA’s inexperience with menstruation. While redesigning the space flight kit for her, NASA engineers asked Ride if 100 pads would be enough for a week-long mission.
In my latest research, I spoke to dozens of women expeditionaries about how they overcame the obstacles associated with menstruation in Antarctica. They revealed that managing menstruation remains taboo and has been made even more difficult by a culture of silence.
As one expeditionary told me:
I haven’t had good conversations with other women because there aren’t any that I’ve worked with. I was very alone with these things.
The Life of an Expeditionary Woman
So why is getting your period in Antarctica difficult?
Well, for starters, you can only go to the bathroom in certain places due to environmental protection laws. You must collect all your bodily waste in sealed containers, which are taken to an incineration station.
Since dispatchers may have to keep used menstrual products with them for several weeks in the field, they should not only think about what products they will use, but also how they will dispose of them.
Reusable menstrual cups are often preferred because they produce no waste and can stay in the body longer (4-8 hours) than disposable products. However, cups should be emptied and cleaned at least three times within 24 hours to minimize the risk of toxic shock syndrome.
As one expeditionary explained:
Mugs are amazing but [they are] also a huge learning curve. I started to learn how to use them for [an expedition] because I’m like I can’t carry used tampons in my bag anymore […] The hardest part is cleaning them discreetly.
Menstruators should also be prepared to manage their periods in small shared spaces. The women I interviewed described the complexity of doing this on male-dominated teams:
The first time I went to Antarctica, I was on a boat […] It was me and [a group of] Men. It’s my period and I’m like, oh my god, what am I doing here?
All Antarctic expeditionaries wear many thick layers to protect against extreme conditions. However, women should be able to change menstrual products without exposing their skin to the cold for long periods of time. Participants in my study came up with creative ways to cope:
I sewed myself underwear that I could velcro on the side so I didn’t have to take all the layers off my legs and feet to change my underwear…
To avoid these challenges on long-duration expeditions, menstruators often rely on menstrual suppression technologies. These include the combined oral contraceptive pill or long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) such as an intrauterine device or injection.
These methods prevent menstruation and pregnancy. And this is essential in extreme environments, where pregnancy is extremely high risk.
LARC is convenient because it requires no additional supplies and little maintenance after insertion. That said, breakthrough bleeding or spotting can be a side effect:
have my period [in Antarctica] was a nightmare. Someone told me he had a [Depo Provera] injection before leaving […] and I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, not to have a period for this particular time” […] but I had my period the whole time I was on the court.
How to support menstrual women
Besides their other already demanding work, my research shows that women must also undertake additional psychological and physical work to manage their periods in extreme environments. Whether in Antarctica or on military deployment, women often go:
changing their menstrual products without privacy or adequate sanitation
carrying bloody menstrual products with them in the field for a long time
improvise menstrual products when none are available
keeping menstrual products in their bodies longer than recommended because they are not fitted with adequate toilet stops
change their hormonal balance with medication to make menstruation less troublesome.
The bottom line is this: menstruation in these contexts has largely been treated as an individual problem, not a site of organizational attention. This must change.
A few simple changes can be applied in any field environment where menstruation is difficult for women. Organizations should make it a priority to:
de-stigmatize menstruation and recognize the unique needs of diverse menstrual women, including trans people and non-binary people
update field manuals to include relevant information on toileting and menstruation
provide menstrual health education to all expeditionaries – especially cisgender men who lead field teams
making toilet stops a standard operational practice
provide menstrual women with free menstrual products and make menstrual underwear available as part of field equipment.
I recently helped the Australian Antarctic Program revise its field manual and reconsider how field environments can be sensitized to the needs of menstruating women. This is an important first step. But success will only come when inclusive operational measures occur by default.
Read more: Supporting menstrual health in Australia means more than just throwing tampons at the problem