For those of us who grew up in the last few decades of the 20th century, the idea that a researcher in a business school could be investigating the role menstrual health can play in achieving gender equity seems incredible. But this is exactly what Maria Carmen Punzi is doing at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) where she is a fourth year ERIM PhD researcher, looking at how social enterprises strive to improve menstrual health as well as how menstrual health affects women’s opportunities, health and inclusive participation in society.

Her goal? “To help organizations look at the world and see where it is not made for cyclical bodies - for bodies that menstruate, that go through miscarriages, that have abortions, that go through perimenopause and menopause. And know what they can do to change that.”

Ahead of her workshop at ECWO’s 2022 conference, we spoke to Maria Carmen about the key moments in her own journey to becoming an activist and researcher, what kind of world she would like to see in a decade’s time and what we can all do to bring menstrual health into our organisations.

Looking back, can you see aspects of your growing up that led you to become an activist around social justice issues?

I tell people that I was quite shy and anxious as a pre-teen and even though they say they can’t see it now, I was! My family and I lived in Rome, a big city with a lot of noise, and I was the oldest of five children, with the four who came after me all being boys, but I actually thrived on cosyness – I still very much love being at home. These are not the sort of traits you might readily associate with someone who embarks on a social justice path. However, looking back, I can see that there was always something in me that prompted me to speak out about injustices, even when I was still at school. When I was around 15, I read the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and it made a really deep impression on me. I became interested in gender equality dynamics and started reading more about women living in places where their rights are oppressed. As I grew older and faced my self-doubt and anxieties, I felt more confident and took stronger stances about the injustices I saw. I came to realise that my activism was always there; it was just hidden underneath the fear I had of change and the responsibility that I felt at that time in being the oldest child in a big family.

Can you identify one moment when your life trajectory changed?

It was during my Bachelor's degree in Politics Philosophy and Economics which I was doing at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. In 2015, I chose to come to Erasmus University for my semester abroad and that was the moment that my life shifted. Physically, I left behind everything that I had ever known – every pattern and dynamic that I had been cocooned in. I have a very strong bond with my family members but leaving Rome at the age of 20, even for those first few months, gave me a sense that I could be whoever I wanted to be. On top of that I took some really inspiring courses; it is not a surprise that I am still here because Erasmus has been a place of exploration, curiosity, and expansion from that very moment. Two distinctive paths started for me during my exchange: a personal journey of connecting with my own cyclical body and one of understanding why reproductive, menstrual, sexual health and freedom are central to gender equity. I had read a piece about menstruation in western Nepal in Internazionale, an Italian magazine. In some villages, women had to sleep in cow sheds during menstruation because they were considered impure. Although the practice has now been banned, it still happens and reading that article provoked some deep thinking in me: why had I never thought of the connections between menstruation and women’s rights?

You then decided to do your Masters at Erasmus?

Yes! I applied to the Global Business and Sustainability Master’s Degree at RSM and, when I started, I already knew that I wanted to write on business and menstrual health for my thesis. After the lightbulb moment I had reading the article about women in Nepal I realized we are missing the menstrual health lens everywhere, especially in organizations. My final thesis was titled "Turning Taboo into Opportunity: How Social Enterprises are Changing Menstrual Experience Worldwide". It was a really stimulating time for me. I interviewed 15 social entrepreneurs working on menstrual health for my thesis, many of whom are still part of my network. At the same time the menstrual activism movement was about to peak and there was a lot of space to connect: I began meeting many inspiring practitioners and researchers working in this area. My mind was continuously blown. After I finished the thesis, I remember having a conversation with my parents and saying: “I want to work in menstrual health!”. I had no idea how to do that though, because the job I wanted did not exist!

But then you found a job!

Or better the job found me! I had been sharing about my thesis findings on blogs and LinkedIn, and the non-profit organization PSI-Europe contacted me and asked to have a conversation. That was another life changing moment for me – a real sliding door. I was appointed Program Coordinator - Menstrual Health Focal Point for the organization. I was very lucky to have fantastic managers who really believed in, and elevated, me – both a man and a woman (who is now the director of PSI-Europe). I learnt that you can change someone’s life, be really instrumental to their success, if you elevate them at the right moment. I was just 23 when I was hired and didn’t know if I could live up to being the Menstrual Health Focal Point of this huge organization. However, they saw my potential and I am proud to say that I was able to make some real changes during my time there. I was also fortunate to travel to the Global South, working in Zimbabwe, Nepal and Ethiopia. That time helped me overcome many of the preconceptions I had absorbed growing up in the Global North. I quickly realized that the local professionals that PSI-Europe worked with on the ground didn’t need me; instead, I was there to support their fantastic work, spark conversations and amplify their learnings.

You then decided to pursue a PhD?

It had been on my mind for a long time – I stayed connected to the university while at PSI-Europe, doing some teaching now and then. I was a little apprehensive about becoming too disconnected from the practice world by taking on a PhD but I made the decision to go for it and to try and do it on my terms.

Your research starts from the recognition that while data shows that menstrual health affects women’s opportunities, health and inclusive participation in society, the topic is widely missing in current agendas around gender equity. How are you hoping to change that?

I hope to give all organisations the critical ability to look at the world and see where it is not made for cyclical bodies - for bodies that menstruate, that go through miscarriages, that have abortions, that go through perimenopause and menopause. And help them figure out what they can do about it. That I am able to do this work at a business school might seem odd but it is confirmation that menstrual health matters everywhere. I could be doing it in a sociology or anthropology department but in the context of a business school, where we talk about organisations, efficiency, profit, it is powerful if not disruptive. Even in institutions and businesses that engage in Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work, issues related to the lifecycle and to menstrual and reproductive health are very rarely discussed.

You frequently mention the cyclical nature of our bodies (and also the world). Can you go a bit deeper into this?

Currently, we live in a linear society that keeps going faster and faster. The menstrual cycle shines a light on how unsustainable and harmful that is, to people and the earth alike. In fact, the cycle is made of different phases characterized by with two main events: ovulation and menstruation. The ovulatory phase is dominated by estrogen and testosterone and often corresponds to improved productivity and verbal skills. The premenstrual phase, instead, is dominated by the hormone progesterone and is characterized by a critical eye and better reflective skills. But this is not the only cycle that exists in the world. We have the seasons, the rhythm of the day, the testosterone cycle in men. My point here is that the menstrual cycle does not make women and people who menstruate the exception. It makes us a living example of what a sustainable rhythm – of creation and rest - looks like. There can be periods of intense work and productive, but after that there must be time for reflecting, reviewing and replenishing to make room for creative ideas. Especially in light of the rates of burnouts and environmental degradation, the menstrual cycle can be an antidote to burnout and an invitation for everyone – with or without a menstrual cycle – to connect to the wisdom of cycles.

How can members of the ECWO community introduce these ideas into their own organisations?

I would suggest two things here. On a practical level, check with your facilities management department (if you have one) to see if you can introduce pads or tampons in the toilets. Getting these into toilets seems trivial but it is a big conversation starter and is in fact harder to implement than you might think (together with the University Council and Erasmus Verbindt, Maria Carmen has advocated and obtained funding for free menstrual products on the Erasmus campus). On an organizational culture level, I would advise starting conversations around menstrual health in a non-confrontational way. Ask people to observe for themselves the ebbs and flows of their creativity, productivity, and different skills. Reflect together on how these changing patterns can be honored and harnessed throughout the working week. Gather ideas from people about how they would like the organizations support their wellbeing (especially if they experience debilitating symptoms like pain or mood swings). Talking about menstrual health at work can break the ice for many other ‘sensitive’ conversations: for example, the physical and impact of chronic health conditions, fertility issues and mental health struggles. That’s what inspires me to keep going every single day: I know that tapping into the wisdom of the menstrual cycle can improve the health and wellbeing of every single person in the organization, with or without a cycle.

Interested in reading more from Maria Carmen?

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is committed to creating organisations where all women are fully and equitably engaged at all levels. ECWO provides education, research and advocacy that benefits individual women, organisations and society as a whole and helps create communities of women who support and empower each other in creating change. ECWO’s open programmes, in-company programmes, coaching, events, advisory alliances, research and advocacy drive its vision of a world where all women have an equal share of organisational power and influence.

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