Breastfeeding is more public and accepted than in years past, with pumping rooms popping up in airports and sports venues. But there’s still something lacking about workplace breastfeeding knowledge.
It’s not necessarily for malicious reasons, but male-dominated industries and male business leaders may have some difficulty understanding certain maternity care needs like breastfeeding.
There are ways that people can approach male leaders about breastfeeding and destigmatize it, said Jennifer Jordan, director of mom & baby at breast-pump provider Aeroflow Healthcare.
There are several workplace misconceptions that should be addressed, Jordan said. One is that a woman who is pumping is going to be less productive or is going to be a burden. Another is that there’s something uncomfortable or sexual about breastfeeding.
“It’s important to be able to say the word ‘breast’ and it not be sexualized,” Jordan said. “It’s important to understand that breastfeeding is the recommended method by the World Health Organization for feeding a baby. There’s nothing weird or taboo about it.”
Employers have reached out to her company for help when they haven’t known how to navigate this situation, Jordan said. Some common questions she’s received are, “How do we start building out a space/room for breastfeeding mothers?” And, “How do we communicate with a pregnant woman about her plans after having the baby?”
“HR should be armed with as much information as possible,” she said, adding that if someone finds out she’s pregnant, HR is the first place she’ll go to ask any questions she has. Employers should be sure to educate HR.
Alison Sonderegger, senior engineering manager and global chair of the Women’s Inclusion Network, an employee resource group that’s part of New York-based internet company Oath, clarified that for a mother to have a successful, long-term breastfeeding relationship with her child, it takes more daily pumping sessions than one would expect — another fact about breastfeeding managers should be aware of.
“Ninety minutes over a workday is a good starting point. The right hands-free setup, including comfortable mother’s rooms and benefits that allow for hospital-grade pumps, can help keep this time pumping at work productive,” Sonderegger said.
Returning back to work from maternity leave also comes with mixed emotions for women, filled with reserved excitement to have uninterrupted adult conversations without a child attached to you, but also the stress of leaving your child under someone else’s care and picking up where you left off at work.
A manager can alleviate these stresses by letting a new mother know she can take as much time as she needs during the workday for pumping and other aspects of child care, she said.
The confusion brought up by a male manger’s inability to understand breastfeeding brings up a much broader lesson in managing employees well. There are many other situations, from different life situations to illnesses, in which a manager (male or female) has never walked in an employee’s shoes, said Alison Gardyne, vice president of human resources and director of business HR at Intel.
“Being a good manager is working with the employee and trying to be empathetic to the situation they’re going through and understanding and meeting them where they need to be met,” Gardyne said.
It’s hard to make assumptions about the needs of any one employee when they come back, she added. Having a general awareness about your company’s policies and having open discussions with employees is the best approach.
Intel, she said, tries to go above and beyond what is required with parental perks. This manifests in leave policies that give parents both the required medical leave and paid bonding leave on top of that; it also allows new parents some extra cushion if they qualify for a sabbatical.
“We have a unique sabbatical program as well, so if someone is eligible for sabbatical, they can add that to their time off for any type of maternity,” Gardyne said, clarifying that this program applies to all parents, not just mothers.
Intel has also adopted the new parent reintegration plan. For up to a year after returning from leave, a mother can work with her manager about the support she needs — perhaps a flexible schedule around the newborn’s needs.
“It also allows women who are breastfeeding to have a little more flexibility in terms of how they’re scheduling themselves so that they can take advantage of our lactation faculties,” Gardyne said.
Managers can also communicate to employees that they understand their need for work-life balance post-baby by how they prioritize responsibilities in their life, she added. For example, if a manager is most productive with sending emails in the evening, they can be careful to add a caveat about how their employees don’t need to respond until the following work day.
That will help alleviate the worries of new parents staying up with their babies throughout the night.
Also, managers can be sure they communicate to employees when they need to prioritize something in their family life. That can be as simple as telling their team members they’ll be an hour late the next day because they need to take their son to a dentist’s appointment.
“You’re role-modeling subtly that family is important to you but you’re balancing,” Gardyne said, suggesting that managers should carefully consider how they are setting demands on employees’ time and their communication style.