For far too long, women have faced an unfair choice: either be a mother or have a career. Much of the gender wage gap, which sees women earning just 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, stems from a woman’s common obligation to motherhood. When women become mothers, their wages drop and their prospects for advancement dim. But why? This is not because parenthood is inherently more difficult for women to handle—although childbirth does take a physical toll—but instead, because women have disproportionately borne the burden of early parenting. And one of the biggest challenges for many women and early mothers? Breastfeeding.
Many activists propose that workplaces should better support breastfeeding workers, not only as a chance to equalize the wage gap but also simply to give workers with additional needs an accommodating space. In fact, when workers decide to start a family, this can be one of the most pivotal times in their career, a time when many must make one crucial decision. To stay or to leave? For employees who decide to have children and to breastfeed those children, their decisions rest on how welcoming and supportive workplaces are to new parents who decide to breastfeed their children.
At first glance, the go-to answer for supporting breastfeeding mothers seems like installing lactation rooms for privacy. For a long time, lactation rooms became the solution for many advocates, and consequently, many workplaces. Lactation rooms are a great idea for accommodating nursing workers who can use a breast pump in privacy and outside the possible scrutiny of their coworkers.
But truly supporting breastfeeding goes much deeper. It needs to include legislative action, like paid parental leave policies that give all new breastfeeding parents and mothers time to establish the routine of breastfeeding. And it includes cultural change within each workplace.
Improvements on the legislative scale
The U.S. is unique among developed countries for its lack of enforced paid parental leave: American parents get 0 weeks of paid parental leave. By contrast, the Czech Republic offers 28 weeks of paid parental leave.
Out of countries in the United Nations, America is one of only seven—the others being Papua New Guinea and various island countries in the Pacific Ocean—that does not require employers to offer any paid parental leave.
Having paid leave is crucial to new parents, but specifically new mothers or workers who breastfeed, as they often bear the brunt of parenting in the earlier phase of childhood. As such, new American mothers must choose between supporting their families versus rearing their children. This is an impossibly difficult decision to make. And without paid parental leave for both parents, this decision is infinitely harder. Iit’s time that things change. As one of the richest countries in the world, the United States must set paid parental leave policies in place to support all parents in the workplace.
Improvements on a company-wide scale
Within the workplace, there are also ways for companies to make their culture and spaces more accommodating and welcoming for breastfeeding workers.
Here are some steps every workplace can take today:
- Provide clean, private lactation rooms with refrigeration for stored milk.
- Allow flexible scheduling for pumping, without penalizing the workers for this obligation. Nursing typically requires taking regular 20-30 minute breaks every 2-3 hours.
- Offer on-site childcare. Shorter commutes for pumping means parents can easier respond to their babies’ needs.
- Create a positive, shame-free culture around breastfeeding.
- Have managers complete training on breastfeeding rights.
Right now, we’re failing breastfeeding workers. But supporting them is worth it. These changes will result in stronger attachment between parents and children, improved health outcomes and big steps towards closing the gender wage gap. Each workplace can become part of the solution today. It’s time for universal acceptance that breastfeeding should not be a barrier to career success. Hopefully, by enacting these changes, we can make work truly work for new parents.