Why work cultures that support breastfeeding are a key piece in gender quality puzzle
When first-time mom-to-be Charlotte (a pseudonym WorkLife agreed to) returns to work after six months of maternity leave following the birth of her baby this March, the ability to work largely remotely has her feeling positive about her options afterwards – not only for feeding her baby but how this will impact her wider career.
Whether Charlotte and her husband choose to send their baby to daycare or hire a nanny, working from home means Charlotte will have more opportunities to either feed directly, or pump discreetly. It’s a sense of freedom Charlotte is conscious would not have been available to her not just pre-pandemic and the widespread adoption of remote working, but even five years ago.
“Five years ago, you worked your eight to five, your boss was watching the clock, and there was no sense of flexibility at all – it would have been super stressful. Particularly if you do find breastfeeding easy, and it’s something that you want to continue to nurture your child with, but you didn’t get to make that decision of when you would stop – it was your work forcing your hand,” said the New York City-based real estate project manager.
New moms returning to work soon after having their babies have typically faced limited options if they are breastfeeding: give up and switch to formula, or face the task of pumping in between meetings in often less-than-ideal spaces. But this is one thing the Covid pandemic has changed for the better.
Studies have shown a rise in breastfeeding rates during the lockdowns, with mothers finding the lockdowns an ideal time to breastfeed while at home. For example, this survey from breast pump manufacturer Medela of over 2,500 new parents last year shows that around 40% of women indicated an increased commitment to providing breast milk to their babies and 25% were breastfeeding or pumping more now than prior to the virus.
Greater health concerns and extended Covid guidelines, along with greater time at home were key factors. Yet as the study shows, remote work alone isn’t a silver bullet for extended breastfeeding, as 36% of moms in the study were concerned about how they’d feed their baby after returning to work, and 80% wanted better breastfeeding support from their employers.
How that translates to work culture and team dynamics is something Charlotte is acutely aware of.
“My boss and team are largely women and incredibly supportive and understanding. If I said I couldn’t make a team meeting because I was breastfeeding, I know my boss would say ‘no worries, I’ll take notes’,” said Charlotte.
“Having that kind of support going into it even before I’ve had the baby is making me feel way more confident with coming back to work, rather than the stress of worrying how they are going to react when I have to take care of my baby. The flexibility they offer is incredible.”
A culture that’s both supportive to working parents and advocates remote working is one of the reasons first-time mom Liberty Planck was drawn to her latest role as head of remote experience at payroll platform Gusto, which she joined last April when her daughter was one year old, and still breastfeeding.
Gusto’s office spaces, which employees can choose to go to, are fitted out with designated rooms for nursing parents, which include lounge chairs, refrigerators for pumped milk, sinks, full-length mirrors, music players, and hospital-grade Medela Symphony pumps.
Gusto also provides special training for managers who have new parents coming back to work after parental leave, including building flexibility into schedules to ensure workers can nurse or pump as needed. Both the rooms and the training were features pre-pandemic, with two of the three company founders being working parents, feeding into a culture that aims to support them.
“I was intrigued by the world of remote work even before the pandemic, but having my child down the hall from me and being able to have lunch with her and a nurse before her naps – that’s a different sort of life that I didn’t anticipate wanting. And now I can’t imagine going back,” said Planck, who works fully remotely.
Both Charlotte and Planck’s experiences highlight how a work culture that embraces breastfeeding is one positive piece of the gender equality puzzle, as a factor that helps retain women and keep them progressing.
But it’s something that needs to be normalized further, alongside making childcare more accessible, argues Nicki Pritchard, managing partner at executive search consultancy firm Anderson Quigley.
“I’d hope there are now more women having these conversations with their employers. However, I don’t think it’s that straightforward and this decision is also heavily dependent on what type of childcare is locally available and affordable, and is more likely what mothers returning to work think about first before having the discussion about breastfeeding with their employer,” said Pritchard.
“Whilst the ability for a woman to have the choice with support from her employer and the appropriate physical space should be the minimum, addressing wider childcare issues that incorporate breastfeeding will have a greater impact on progression and therefore gender equality at senior levels.”