Two years ago, I ran screaming and cursing from a decade long career at a large, multinational tech company that should have been well equipped to support me as a breastfeeding employee, but was not.
This came after years of compromising to “make pumping work,” which really means spending years as a working mother of three pumping breast milk at my New York City office, at my home office in New Jersey, in client offices, airport waiting areas, restaurants, plane bathrooms, taxis, hotel rooms, my car, trains and countless other locations. That’s not including the ultimate stress of constantly prioritizing and reprioritizing my ambitious mothering and professional goals.
My experience mirrors that of so many working women who are mothers, and serves as a red flag to those that someday hope to be. My exit drove an obsession to figure out why such a large, successful company like the one I worked for and so many others were struggling with this seemingly obvious concept of employee support.
What I found was a generation of women and young mothers who are contributing to the paid workforce more than ever before. Yet their employers universally fail to meet even their most basic needs. Instead, these women are forced to make unnecessary compromises, like setting goals to breastfeed for 12 months, but stopping far earlier. Like I did, they’re trying to “make pumping work” in their car or the bathroom, and are ultimately negatively incentivized to make their struggle known to their employer.
A generation of women and young mothers are contributing to the paid workforce more than ever before, yet their employers universally fail to meet even their most basic needs.
I also found that ignorance and blind spots play a huge role in the issues surrounding pumping and working. Most businesses either had no idea of the missed opportunity of not supporting these valuable employees. And even if they did, many lack the knowledge and resources to change it.
I started Proud Ounces to change the way corporate culture sees and understands pumping, while providing everything employers need to successfully support breastfeeding employees. We specialize in pump coaching for mothers and helping employers build proper lactation support programming in the workplace.
And the results speak for themselves. Our research shows that companies who adopt the initiatives and build a culture of supporting pumping bring a 300% return on investment, an increase in employee retention after maternity leave from 59% to 94%2 and an additional 3.5 hours of weekly productivity for pumping team members. If simply caring about employees isn’t enough, employers also mitigate the legal risk of an area where lawsuits have risen dramatically in the last decade while still reaping all of the PR benefits.
Consider that the employee group this opportunity supports and seeks to retain or recruit is earning 57% of all undergraduate degrees, 59% of masters degrees and makes up the majority of the labor force in the US. The diversity they bring to your team is proven to be vital for productivity.
Most employers think this ends with some sort of sales spin or that the training includes things they’re already doing – on paper, the returns are too good to be true! Considering that nearly all employees I’ve interviewed report very negative experiences due to the lack of lactation support, I’d say there is a great chance it remains an opportunity for most corporations, big and small. Of course, only if you’re willing to get comfortable talking about 80085 in your workplace. That is, breastfeeding, breast pumping and breast milk.
If you’re an employer and you don’t currently have any employees that are or may soon be pregnant, consider why that is, rather than dismissing the idea that you may need to implement a lactation support program. Most women planning for a family aren’t lining up to bring their talents to employers who are not already set up to support them (lookin’ at you, startups), and those that do report that they have to become the “pumping educator” at their place of work. It then becomes the responsibility of the pumping team member to educate her colleagues on her needs.
If you’re an employer and you don’t currently have any employees that are or may soon be pregnant, consider why that is, rather than dismissing the idea that you may need to implement a lactation support program.
To put yourself in their shoes for a moment, consider if you were thinking of accepting a role you were passionate about, but they didn’t have a restroom at the workspace and there also wasn’t any time available for you to use a restroom through the day. If you ever needed to use the restroom, you would need to pitch the concept of adding one to your manager or HR. You would be required to explain in detail what you needed to do in there and the supplies you might need, like a toilet and sink. The decision to take the job would be a lot easier if the restroom and time to use it were a non-issue, right?
As a current employee of a business not supporting those who need to use a restroom, you could probably even imagine just quitting and finding another job that already had a restroom and policies around time to use it rather than taking on the role of restroom educator at your current employer. For a breastfeeding employee, the need to express milk is similar. It’s a necessity, rather than a nice, extra amenity like a coffee machine or a yoga class. And it must be viewed as such if employers hope to recruit and keep employees.
There are three key building blocks of a lactation accommodation program, as we define it at Proud Ounces. The great news is, this is actually pretty easy to do with the right knowledge, tools and a little motivation.
As an employer, designating space protects you legally and awards a valuable return on investment. The choice to take lactation spaces to the next level earns you the opportunity to benefit your business in an even more impactful way. A breastfeeding employee needs private and secure space to pump breast milk. If you don’t provide it, they will be forced to seek it out elsewhere (car, restroom, cluttered closet) which is uncomfortable, stressful and many times illegal. Space can also exist in a work-from-home scenario, as employees navigate rigid pumping or breastfeeding responsibilities alongside video conferencing and back-to-back meeting schedules.
It is your responsibility, as the employer, to put in writing a comprehensive policy that creates and maintains a workplace that fully supports all pumping team members, sets the standard you’d like all employees to strive toward, and reflects the unique nature of your business. Your policy should provide clarity and empowerment for breastfeeding employees and their manager or colleagues, allowing them to comfortably and productively return to work while mitigating your legal risk.
Culture is what happens when you’re not watching. It colors the way employees respond to all situations, regardless of whether direction is included in your written policy or not. How those moments play out are the difference between employees bursting with pride over the incredibly supportive business they work for or commiserating with their coworkers about the way their manager raised an eyebrow when they left a meeting to pump. Proud Ounces’ interviews with past and present pumping team members across many industries reveal a common thread in the way they describe the absence of a supportive culture across their leaders and peers. They didn’t feel accepted or encouraged, they didn’t feel comfortable being fully transparent about their needs and they weren’t confident that the spaces designated for lactation were respected. Supportive lactation culture has the power to drastically change the narrative of this experience for women.
My advice is to act on this. My experience indicates that without it, employers have a recruitment problem immediately, along with spotty issues that could blossom into legal risk at around 25 employees. By 100+ employees, they will be in damage control mode. Society has trained employees to keep quiet on these issues. Most aren’t going to raise flags when it’s time to implement change. Ultimately, it’s up to leaders to recognize the benefits this could bring, not only to countless current and future employees, but also the all-powerful bottom line.
Breast pumping is something employees need to do during work. Looking the other way won’t change that.-30-