Breastfeeding in the Workplace
“This whole movement of women’s lived experiences in the workplace is important at this point in time.” Sabrina Volpone, PhD ’13
The experiences of women in the workplace have gained national traction due to movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. In the 1990s to early 2000s, the third-wave of feminism focused on women’s leadership and recreating a narrative of what it meant to be a professional woman. Today, women are still seeking equal treatment in the workplace, and this is especially true for working mothers.
The conversation around pumping breastmilk at work is just one example of the intersection of being a professional and being a mother. Many women make the choice to feed their babies by pumping breast milk after returning to work. But how does that impact women, their colleagues and their employers?
Sabrina Volpone, assistant professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, researched the stigma that follows women in the workplace once they become mothers. Volpone’s research and subsequent conversations exemplify how this is not only a feminist issue, but a human one as well.
In this episode of Catalyst, Volpone talks about the hypersexualization of the female body that has led to the stigma of pumping breastmilk in a professional environment. Some male colleagues have been known to act differently, even inappropriately, with new mothers when they return to work. She also highlights what employers can do to improve the experience for working mothers that are beneficial for the organization and individual employees. When women are provided safe, secure and comfortable accommodations to pump, they experience higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity.
Gaining a deeper understanding of women’s experience in the workplace is essential to creating policies that make women feel equal to their male counterparts in a professional environment and beyond.
Sabrina D. Volpone is an assistant professor in the Organizational Leadership division at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She earned her PhD in Human Resource Management from the Fox School of Business at Temple University.
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Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner. Today, we’ll explore an issue not often openly discussed at the office: pumping breast milk at work. With me today is diversity scholar Sabrina Volpone, a Fox alumna and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leed School of Business. I caught up with Sabrina on the phone and our conversation was too good not to share.
During the interview, I referenced the Harvard Business Review article about her research on the benefits of societal implications of pumping at work. You can access the article on her website at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. [0:01:00] I asked Sabrina why pumping breast milk at work is important at this moment in time and here is what she had to say.
Sabrina: I think the conversation about women’s experiences, in general, is really gaining traction. We are realizing more and more, some of the barriers that are actually in our workplaces and in our workgroups that women face on a daily basis. As we dig into kind of those lived experiences of women, it increasingly becomes more relevant to organizations and society as a whole why breastfeeding and other issues—whether you want to talk about experiences being pregnant in the workplace, maternity leave, you know, the list goes on and on. So, this whole movement of women’s lived experiences in the workplace is important at this point in time.
Host: It started from conversations, right? I imagine part of that conversation was the taboo [0:02:00] that a lot of women feel about breastfeeding in public and that can carry over into the workplace. Can you talk a little bit about that taboo being an impetus for this research?
Sabrina: Well, in our research we specifically found that breastfeeding women in the workplace have experienced a number of types of stigmas. They were actually thinking about their professional image and how that was being damaged. Individuals would tell us that they would have to pump in shared workplaces. An interesting example was, you know, how do I then be professional and have this 10-, 20-, 30-year career with this colleague, you know, when you’ve seen part of my body that I don’t usually share with other co-workers. So, really fearing that being a breastfeeding mom would damage their professional image in that way.
And then we also saw another type of stigma [0:03:00] and kind of the taboo associated with breastfeeding at work and that was really a stereotype that women have faced from their male co-workers. In society, in general, the breast has really been sexualized and seen in a lot of different contexts other than breastfeeding. So what relationships were going to be like—with male bosses or male co-workers, male colleagues really—were a form of stigma that the women we talked to, talked about a lot. They felt very uncomfortable approaching that.
Then the third type of stigma and kind of taboo we saw in our research was just co-workers’ negative perceptions of breastfeeding moms or moms that were taking time to pump. One example is, you know if you’ve just pumped milk and you have to walk down the hall to find a fridge to keep it in for the rest of the day [0:04:00], you know. What are my co-workers’ reactions to that? Me carrying pumped milk, which is a bodily fluid. Also if I’m sharing a fridge with other colleagues and they’re putting their spaghetti for lunch next to my pumped breastmilk. What are their negative perceptions of the fridge space being kind of dedicated to breast milk? Just in general, some of those negative perceptions related to sharing workspaces with breastfeeding women.
Host: That’s fascinating, so I am not a mother but I have a lot of female colleagues who, you know pump at the office and I’m used to putting my coffee creaming beside breast milk without really thinking anything of it. More power to the women, right? But I can see how those are real concerns just especially because I think a big part of what you’re talking about [0:05:00] is shame. What space do I have even though this is a really beautiful thing I am doing, I’m raising a child from something produced from my own body. It produced a level of social shame.
Sabrina: The way society has really approached kind of the female body, in general, just puts a lot of barriers to women who are coming back into the workplace for them to choose to breastmilk and do so naturally.
Host: And you know part of this, this podcast- the point of this podcast is about what’s going on at work so there is this whole other level, right. So I think there is, “Oh god, what are the men going to think when I maybe have these reminders that maybe make them think about my breasts? But also, what is that going to do for my career? Like, is that going to negatively impact me or are they automatically not going to take me seriously?”
Sabrina: And the other level to that is even other women [0:06:00] and their reactions. Yes, this is a natural thing. A lot of people who breastfeed choose to feel very passionately about it as a natural process, which it is. But when you share a room with your colleagues with maybe your shirt off or in various states of undressed—that can put awkwardness into the organizational space, even amongst women who are pro-breastfeeding. So that opened an interesting thing we found from our study.
Host: Do you see breastfeeding in the workplace as a feminist issue?
Sabrina: Oh! That’s a great question, so my answer might be surprising. It’s actually yes and no so I’ll explain both of those answers but I’ll start with yes, breastfeeding is definitely a feminist issue. Breastfeeding women need support in the workplace and should have support in the workplace [0:07:00]. Sometimes that takes women coming together and really highlighting what that female experience means for the rest of the society to understand and remove some of those barriers and put support in place. I think that’s a part of a bigger conversation of how women’s bodies, many would argue, have been politicized in a number of ways through a number of laws. And that can get into different women’s issues.
But to speak to breastfeeding in general, it just feeds into this general culture where, in our society, we don’t even blink our eyes twice when we see women in marketing advertisements in lingerie or in states of being half-clothed or half-naked that we don’t even really blink our eye to. But if somebody is in a store or a public place, let alone a workplace breastfeeding—which you know, is biology’s [0:08:00] definition is a natural process is literally what the breast is for—then we blink our eye and have a lot of stigma around that, shame around that. So it’s really a part of a bigger conversation of feminist issues and we need to tackle that and have those conversations so women get the support they need.
So, in that way yes, breastfeeding is a feminist issue but on the other hand, I would also say no it is not a feminist issue because it’s a human issue. Babies need to be fed and there are a number of options to do that. But to support the growth of the next generation of human beings, you know, they need to be fed so why are we not supporting a very solid option to do that? It seems a little strange, so it’s not a feminist issue, on one hand, it’s a human issue.
Host: That’s really smartly said. I would say I think that the stigmatization part is the feminist part [0:09:00] like when you look at the fourth wave of feminism; like if you looked at the waves that came before and I think the fourth is really building off of the third wave where it’s this idea where women reclaim their bodies and desexualize them.
Sabrina: And when we take that to the workplace-specific context, it is amazing to see some of the stigmas and how they come across in workplace settings. So a number of participants that we interviewed kept talking about the shame that colleagues and supervisors have put on them—that when they went to take time to pump, that they were taking time away from work, or away from the work team or weren’t as dedicated to working in their careers as maybe a colleague sitting right next to them in the next cubicle that they might be competing for the next promotion with. So the way these stigmas really played out in the workplace is interesting to consider [0:10:00] on another level in addition to the general societal stigmas and barriers that women face with this issue.
Host: That’s really interesting. So I want to talk a little more about your research book. Before we do, let’s talk a little bit about the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, and what it has done for breastfeeding mothers at the office. It’s sort of interesting that this law has forced companies to make a space for women, so thanks to the Affordable Care Act, employers are now required to provide women with private spaces to pump while at work. Do you have the background on what led this to be a part of the ACA?
Sabrina: So, I certainly was not in those rooms or I don’t have a legal background either but I do have a PhD in HR, and I am familiar with breastfeeding and also pregnancy termination research.
What I think we were seeing at the time that really led to this conversation I think was the importance to this, is that organizations didn’t [0:11:00] really have guidance as to how they can accommodate—or even if they were taking maybe a more negative approach, what they legally had to do for women who are pumping.
And so, some common questions were: Is pumping at work considered a break or not? What are my employees’ rights for pumping at work? Can I make them pump in a bathroom or other public space shared with other people looking for any private space? You know, a breakroom, a prayer room, what kind of space do I need to provide for them? Also, one of the biggest questions at this time and is still a question that a lot of organizations struggle with, what is a reasonable time to pump? That varies by women and so Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, is such a wonderful [0:12:00] l first step for establishing some answers and guidance to these really popular questions that all organizations are struggling with. It did make it part of a bigger conversation about maternity leave and pregnancy discrimination and some of the topics we already talked about.
But we should also kind of consider that the Affordable Care Act has been around for a decade now. We should also consider some of where we need to go. There are still loopholes that we have seen in the Affordable Care Act and where we can go in the future to help breastfeeding moms. Interestingly, it doesn’t cover every breastfeeding mom. So there are a lot of loopholes as to who’s covered by that Act and who’s not. So there are definitely places where we can expand [0:13:00] coverage to make sure all working moms who are breastfeeding are able to do so.
There’s still a lot of confusion as to how much time women get to pump. I think the law says something about your employer must provide a “reasonable break time.” Well, depending on your employer’s support or lack of support for breastfeeding moms, what’s reasonable can be very subjective. And in court, so far, it has been suggested that every few hours would be typical to respond to that reasonable break time—that is quoted in the law—but you know seeing as women’s experiences are different. Pumping isn’t something that can be done, boom in fifteen minutes on the dot.
There are still some questions that organizations have even a decade later. There’s still a lot of room from us to listen to [0:14:00] women and their experiences pumping to try and be more accommodating being an even remove further barriers—even though the Affordable Care Act did such a great job to really get organizations talking about this and kind of setting the foundation to be a part of the policies and procedures for those companies.
Host: It was ten years ago that it was passed. It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed. But I am curious, what does it mean to support breastfeeding moms and how do you think that could be expanded more inclusive and more supportive in the workplace?
Sabrina: I think that there is a huge difference between having policies and procedures and in taking the next step, which is considering the lived experiences of these employees who are pumping and breastfeeding. So, in addition to creating policies and procedures, which are helpful in and of itself, I think, to really support breastfeeding moms, we need to listen to them and their experiences and go to that next step [0:015:00].
To give you an example, in our research we often heard from women that they didn’t feel comfortable in the places they had to pump, even if it wasn’t a restroom. So the Affordable Care Act really gives us, you don’t have to pump in a restroom but the variation then of what other separate spaces other than the restroom look like. I think in the news we have all heard stories about women having to pump in closets.
And even in organizations that are really supporting their breastfeeding moms, we would find time and time again kind of interesting stories where—yes, you have this lovely room, we have a nice chair for you, we have your own private fridge—you know, they are really making the effort to support those breastfeeding moms. But then at the same time the room doesn’t have a lock. So they would get walked in on by other colleagues, their male colleagues [0:16:00] and you know, how comfortable is that experience really?
We had another interesting example with us where it was this wonderful room, it even had a sink, a private fridge for the breastfeeding moms but there were no outlets. How– you know that usually with a breast pump you’re going to need an outlet, and of course, there are some battery packs and things like that you can use. But again, just the idea to put yourself in the lived experiences of those breastfeeding moms, they need an outlet.
You know, a fridge is very helpful so going above the law even above official policies and procedures. And even in our studies about the quality of the breastfeeding space, it doesn’t have to be something you put thousands of dollars into or anything like that but there are little touches like outlets [0:17:00] that really make a huge difference and don’t cost a lot of money. So really support breastfeeding moms, I think it comes down to going above policies and procedures and considering their lived experiences.
Host: So, can you tell us a little bit about your research and its findings. I am going to link to an article in the podcast description about your research that features the full study and all the co-authors on the study but we love to hear a little bit about it and what the findings were.
Sabrina: Well yes, thank you for acknowledging that this was a group effort. So this research involved a team with co-authors from the University of Arizona, Southern Methodist University and also, MarshBerry Consulting. What we found was, we really wanted to speak to this idea of the stigma of breastfeeding employees—that they’re taking time away from their work to pump, that they’re not being team players, that they’re not devoted to their careers [0:18:00]. You know, some of those just stereotypes that we kept hearing either in the media or through the women that we interview.
We really wanted to counter against that stereotype and we thought one of the best ways to do that actually design a pretty interesting methodology where we actually surveyed women over three weeks. We also surveyed them in the morning, afternoon and evening.
And so, what that allowed us to do is actually show employees’ productivity and how they’re contributing to the workplace. It’s not just a traditional understanding of productivity, like how much work you are getting done for the company, how much money are you making for the client. We really expanded the idea of that and showed that productivity is also something about [0:19:00] not only meeting your work goals but also are you meeting your breastfeeding goals? How many ounces of breastmilk are you pumping and is that meeting your needs? And we also extended that to productivity in your life domain.
What’s so interesting about this study is that previous research looks at work-life balance and a lot of it looks at the conflict between those two domains and that work that does actually look at the two domains enriching each other. Still, it had not really considered that your work and life sometimes are not things you can divide or separate. So, a lot of times in the literature or in society, we have this idea that “Oh you can shut off the work part and spend time with your family” or you can shut off the family demands and just be very present in the workplace [0:20:00] and separate those two things out.
When it comes to breastfeeding women it’s actually not possible—you’re bringing in something from your family life, you know, the fact that you want to provide milk, your own milk for your baby and you’re bringing that into the workplace through these pump breaks. So those two things cannot be separated, that work and life domain is impossible to separate those two. You’re infusing one with the other.
So what are those experiences like for the women, for these pumping employees. Those are going to look different than what’s been talked about in the literature ever before. So that really took us expanding what is productivity? It’s not just meeting my work goals; in addition to that, it is my pumping goals, how much milk I’m pumping. It’s also about am I satisfied with how I am balancing those work and life domains to be able to meet my goals [0:21:00] and be productive across all these different domains that I want to be successful in.
Host: And it is, right? Like productivity, why should we create this space for women? Why is that our problem? But I think as companies and cultures of organizations change to sort of being more about the culture or about values or about diversity, equity, inclusion.
These kinds of conversations do seep into the mix because like you said, the divide between work and personal life seems to be blending more and more as people go virtual and are easy to access on their phones. But I think it’s sort of naturally eroding. It’s interesting to talk about the productivity aspect and it does feel a little bit like a defense. Why should we have to do that? Why would we have to defend ourselves? Why should women actually have to say, this makes me more productive because I am happier? [0:22:00] And I am kind of curious what sort of metric you would recommend that companies look at to ensure employee satisfaction among women who pump at the office?
Sabrina: So, I would definitely recommend to take that broad approach to productivity as we did. Measure constructs that aren’t only in the workplace but are also a part of that life domain or that family domain. Because what we saw was that being able to successfully balance both of those and feeling productive in both domains—that is, it increased those positive emotions and decreased the negative emotions. And so why we just looked at productivity outcomes and again we did have that broad conceptualization of what that was.
We know from the literature that positive emotions are going to lead to a number of fantastic [0:23:00] outcomes for the organizations and the employee. And we know that decreased negative emotions have similar outcomes and even additional ones. So, why organizations wouldn’t want to be taken into account, this major factor of what is increasing those positive emotions and decreasing the negative ones for this sample of employees is beyond me—because I think the outcomes in addition to productivity are limitless.
Host: And I also wanted to speak to your idea that and your acknowledgment that work and family domains are blending more and more outside of a feminist’s issue or outside of a breastfeeding topic. If we’re looking at the news outline from today, and you look at Coronavirus, you know that has nothing to do with breastfeeding or any of these topics, specific to our research but what it does show is [0:24:00] that across countries and affecting thousands of people now, they are being forced—and forced as kind of a strong word but—they are now literally blending their work and life because they are teaching classes online from their house, and you know being quarantined or not wanting to leave the house, workplaces shut down, universities shut down.
Now people are kind of having to adapt on the fly so to speak and figure out how to do virtual teams and virtual teamwork and manage via Skype or FaceTime. So the idea of this work and family and work and life really blending together is so relevant to so many domains whether you consider the coronavirus and the effect that that’s having on our workplaces or a number of other topics[0:25:00] in addition to the breastfeeding one we are talking about now.
Sabrina: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. I think employee satisfaction is becoming so much more important and I think the culture people create—which DEI and sort of flexible work and issues like this one—really taking care of families. Working moms are really important and it creates a set of values that people really either adapt or do not adapt to which will make them effectively productive in the long run.
Host: I think it’s sort interesting, I teach here at Temple, I teach a communications class and we talk a lot about DEI and a lot about culture how communication supports that and one of the big things about why multicultural communication, why do we have to think about all of these audiences and how they relate to each other and you know dominant culture presents versus [0:26:00] international and some other things. I think part of it is the argument that is made for it often is productivity or you know there is this — which I think is great and important because we are, you know — if you’re in business, it’s always going to be important to be sustainable.
But I think it’s also — it’s sort of moral too, right? To just be like we should be doing this, we should be providing safe spaces for women so that they feel safe so that they feel welcome in the office so that they can pump how they need to pump and go on with their day. So, I think there’s part of me, you know the more progressive part of me that’s like why do we have to tie this to productivity but I do understand the logic behind it, especially if you are not someone who has been in this situation. So I don’t fully understand it but I think just to sort of go back to your research and to ground it. [0:27:00].
What you’re really saying is women found that if they were not pressured to punch in and punch out to pump and if they had a space that was dedicated to them, with the amenities they felt were necessary—such as a refrigerator to keep the milk cold, the proper outlets, a lock—which doesn’t seem like that much to add. It really led to job satisfaction, which led to enhanced productivity and them feeling a sense of satisfaction and probably empowerment that they were able to perform better on the job and with more confidence.
Sabrina: That exactly speaks to our study findings. We really found that quality of the breastfeeding space. So, the three dimensions we really looked at are, is the space quiet and private? And then is it comfortable and relaxing? Those really predicted the increase of positive emotions, [0:28:00] the decrease of negative emotions. And then a big factor in that was, do women feel that stigma in their work environment?
Host: So that’s more of a culture question I think, like corporate culture.
Sabrina: Yes, absolutely right Policies and procedures and the Affordable Care Act can only go so far into creating a culture. At some point, the organization needs to address any stigma that there is. It is a very nice signal, you know, the quality of the breastfeeding space—if organizations are putting in the kind of resources or even sending the signal and that we are dedicating the space for breastfeeding moms. I think that’s a signal that can kind of be a really great start to establishing that positive culture for breastfeeding moms in the workplace.
Host: Are there companies that you have come across that you think are providing support for [0:29:00] breastfeeding moms in a way that you think is admirable or is maybe a step above what others are doing?
Sabrina: So, some popular press articles have done surveys and so there are few organizations that we all know and love that have gotten a reputation for being really supportive of breastfeeding moms. One is Netflix actually, and so not– what I can say about the companies that score highly on being supportive of breastfeeding moms is that they seem to have a whole package available in terms of how they are viewing women—as far as their pregnancy experience, their maternity leaves experience and then also their experience when they come back to work and maybe pumping.
So, one thing that I have read and heard about Netflix is that they are very [0:30:00] lax about that time associated with your pumping break. And so, when you take that stress out of “Oh I need to get this done in twenty minutes” — it oftentimes doesn’t — and this might not speak to all women’s experiences but it oftentime doesn’t take much longer than that. Yet, you have an employee that is not stressed out about that time that’s being put on them.
So what they are finding, I think, at Netflix is that—when we treat women like people who are balancing a number of different demands across both their work and life, when we give them the space to accomplish their goals, whether it be breastfeeding-related and also work-related, and acknowledge that raising a baby is exhausting—you know, take that time you need to balance those demands—they’re seeing really positive returns on that. [0:31:00]
And in addition to some of those policies and procedures around time, they are also noted as having a very comfortable environment to breastfeed as well. Another company who has been talked about very positively in terms of breastfeeding spaces and environments is IBM. One example I heard about IBM is that if a woman needs to take a business trip, as is, you know, very common in the work environment, they actually pay to send her breastmilk home in these special temperature-controlled packages. Yeah, I think CNN actually looked into that and reported on that. Ersten Young is another organization that has gotten some popular positive press. There is a list by Best Companies of the top best companies for working women who that are breastfeeding and organizations [0:32:00] like Working Mother put those out so there are lists out there.
But what I am really seeing across those top companies that have the good reputations is that it’s not just the breastfeeding—they seem to be paying attention to the women’s experience in the workplace in a more well-rounded way and of course that includes women who choose to breastfeed and or pump.
Host: So, time, experience and supportive culture…
Sabrina: Yes, it all goes together.
Host: And not feeling bad about not doing this in the office but is there anything else that companies are doing to demonstrate their support?
Sabrina: Yeah, something I have been wanting to point out and I think also specify answers to this question is that the companies that are getting it right are really paying attention to their female employees [0:33:00] and what their needs are or what kind of support would benefit them as an employee and also as a breastfeeding employee.
So, part of that is that, you know, sometimes we just generalize the term breastfeeding or pumping but, in our research, that really encompassed different subsections, subgroups of women. So, there are those who breastfeed at home and pump breastmilk at work. There’s those who pump breast milk at home and at work. There are also those who breastfeed at home and to some circumstances, maybe the daycare is onsite at their workplace, they can also breastfeed at work.
So, that experience and the support that that mom needs to get to and from that onsite daycare throughout the day to physically breastfeed during the day instead of pump [0:34:00] might look very different than the type of support that someone’s need if they are breastfeeding at home and pumping at work. So just that acknowledgment that this experience for women looks quite different. Also, the industry might play a part in that. It just goes on and on but really being able to kind of be in tune with the support that your women employees are asking for or that would benefit them. Just know that that can look a lot different, that everybody’s breastfeeding journey or pumping journey can look very differently and to acknowledge that and support them in those different ways.
Host: Yeah, and it’s not that hard you just have to ask them, right? Ask them —
Sabrina: — They’ll be happy to tell you, or if they’re not, maybe someone else is.
Host: I would like to thank Sabrina for joining me and for sharing her research that helps make the case for more supportive [0:35:00] workplace environments for all women. Organizations can better support moms by providing quiet, private and comfortable spaces for them to pump and by being mindful of the role office culture plays.
Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by Evo Terra, Megan Alt, Anna Batt and Stephen Orbanek, with help from Karen Naylor. Special thanks to Joe Williams at Temple University’s Tech Center. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I am Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.
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