Tackling Taboo Topics: A Review of the Three Ms in Working Women’s Lives

By Alicia A. Grandey, Allison S. Gabriel, Eden B. King

From Journal of Management

Over the past few years, debate moderators were called incompetent because they might be menstruating, widespread pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination was exposed by the New York Times, and political candidates were decried as unfit for office because they might be menopausal.  We were curious what the scientific evidence said about these “three M’s” (Menstruation, Maternity, Menopause) and whether they actually interfere with women’s productivity and careers, beyond these extreme cases.

Our comprehensive review of existing evidence – from medicine, social sciences, and organizational science – sought to find whether simply having a woman’s body is enough to reduce the likelihood of workplace rewards.  Across hundreds of studies, women are evaluated as performing equally well to men but receive fewer promotions and lower pay.  We wanted to see whether experiencing – or being perceived as experiencing – these three hormonal and bodily changes related to reproduction interfered with women’s work outcomes. 

Given there is much variability and ignorance about these three phases, we first summarized the biological and hormonal experiences during these three phases. They are highly variable from one woman to the next, and even within the same woman from one month or year to the next.  We represented all woman’s variable experiences, which range from not occurring at all (i.e., some women do not experience maternity) to mundane discomfort, to extreme pain (i.e., some women suffer great physical pain from each stage).

Overall, we did not find consistent evidence that the actual hormonal changes of three Ms impair women’s moods, cognitions, or performance behaviors.  In other words, having one’s period, being pregnant, or being menopausal is not directly linked to being moody, distracted, or incompetent.  In fact, if anything, during these phases women put in extra effort to “overperform” and disprove the stereotypes, and in some cases the stages may enhance performance.  



Yet, sometimes women do experience severe discomfort or pain during these stages; as with any form of pain, they may then be distracted and absent.  Unfortunately, for these female-specific experiences there is more taboo or shame around them than other forms of pain; thus, women may not seek accommodations that could help the work effectively around the pain while at work.  

In fact, the most consistent evidence is that experiencing Menstruation, Maternity, Menopause are associated with negative stereotypes of being uncommitted, incompetent and/or disgusting, which then impair women’s work outcomes. Given these negative reactions, women must either hide the three M experiences at work or share them and then cope with the negative stereotypes held by supervisors and peers.   

Our review proposes a set of new research questions to better understand how these bodily changes are affecting women’s career outcomes, perhaps explaining gender disparities that exist in pay and promotions.  We also propose ways that business can tackle these taboos, by creating a safe work climate where women can discuss natural bodily changes if they need accommodations (i.e., flexible work hours, breastfeeding locations, cooling fans for hot flashes) which will permit women to continue to be productive, paid well and promoted throughout their life span. 

Article details

Tackling Taboo Topics: A Review of the Three Ms in Working Women’s Lives

Alicia A. Grandey, Allison S. Gabriel, Eden B. King

First Published July 30, 2019. Review Article

DOI: 10.1177/0149206319857144

Journal of Management

 About the Authors