We need to stop discriminating against women who breastfeed at work

Mother With Baby Working In Office At Home Looking At Laptop
One in three breastfeeding mums have been forced to use the toilet at work to express milk. Photo: Getty Images

The transition from employee to mother to working mother is not an easy one. Managing heavy workloads, childcare, and day-to-day life is a significant challenge, particularly if employers aren’t willing to be flexible.

One aspect that often goes overlooked is breastfeeding at work. Breastfeeding workers typically need to express milk using a breast pump several times during an eight-hour shift.

Yet in some cases, women who are in pain and leaking milk are denied break requests, and don’t have adequate privacy needed to pump breast milk. This can lead to women expressing milk in unsanitary places, such as toilets — and leaves these workers open to harassment from others.

One in three breastfeeding mums have been forced to use the toilet at work to express milk, according to a recent survey by Slater and Gordon. In the survey of 2,000 women who have breastfed in the past five years, more than half have had to pump in an unsuitable place — including the staff room, their car, or at their desk. As a result, nearly a third of respondents said they have experienced problems while trying to express, including issues with their supply, infections, and anxiety.

“At head office there isn’t a specific room to use, so I have to try and find an empty office or conference room, which don’t have locks or any privacy. I’ve had to use the toilets on many occasions,” according to one 36-year-old pharmaceutical worker.

“There was a time when I first started with the company and I could feel myself lactating. I hadn’t had the chance to express before the meeting had started and ended up leaking all over my shirt. I had to spend the rest of the meeting trying to cover the wet stains with my blazer. I didn't feel I was able to leave and just sat there. It was so embarrassing,” she said.

The woman, who remained anonymous, added, “I also had back-to-back meetings from 8:30am till 5:30pm, with no lunch. Any 10 minute break I would get was just not enough time to express. As a result I’ve had many infections from not being able to express or feed my baby on time.”

Carla Montemayor, communications adviser at Maternity Action, highlights a number of problems women face at work while breastfeeding, including a “lack of facilities or unsuitability of facilities to express milk or rest, no paid breaks for breastfeeding, and other problems related to the lack of flexible working arrangements upon women's return from maternity leave.”

While it’s crucial for both the health of mothers and their babies to ensure women are able to breastfeed at work, Montemayor points out that solving this issue also makes it more likely for new mothers to return and stay in work.

Research published this year by Pregnant@Work found some breastfeeding women have been fired or forced to resign after highlighting the problems they’ve faced in the workplace. The report Exposed: Discrimination Against Breastfeeding Workers found two-thirds of breastfeeding discrimination legal cases from the last decade ended in job loss.

Low-wage workers have a particularly difficult time getting the accommodation they need to breastfeed, according to the report, and these women are only half as likely as middle-income earners to have access to the time and space needed to pump at work.

Moreover, various stigma surrounding breastfeeding — and the fear of being discriminated against — keep women from speaking up about what they need from their employer.

So what can employers do to ensure women are able to breastfeed at work?

“There is no explicit statutory right to breastfeeding breaks at work in the UK, unlike in some other European countries,” Montemayor said. “However, UK employers must meet their obligations to breastfeeding employee under health and safety law, flexible working law, and discrimination law. Breastfeeding mothers in the UK have some legal protection under health and safety and sex discrimination laws.”

“Employers have legal obligations to provide: health and safety protection, flexible working hours, protection from indirect sex discrimination, rest facilities, and protection from harassment.”

It’s important to have an open environment where an employee can talk about their needs as a working mother. Unwanted comments can constitute harassment, even disguised as “banter” or “jokes” — and should be reported to a manager or HR. Maternity Action advises talking to your employer about where you can express milk and when — if they don’t have a specific room, they may be able to provide you with an empty office or first aid room with a lockable door.

In recent years, mother-friendly coworking spaces have popped up to help parents ease themselves back into work. Third Door, a family-friendly coworking space with an onsite flexible Ofsted registered nursery, was started by Shazia Mustafa nine years ago.

“When we were designing the space back in 2010, creating a place where mothers could nurse their babies was very important to us. We have also found that many mums have been able to choose to return to work earlier as a result of being able to nurse their baby,” Mustafa said.

“Likewise, many have been able to nurse their baby for longer, rather than having to cut their breastfeeding journey short due to inflexible work hours. Ultimately it all comes down to preferences and we have been able to give mothers that choice to make decisions on their own terms. Many mothers have also used our offices to pump for breastmilk and then been able to leave it in the fridge to collect for later. Offering that safe space where mothers feel comfortable to do this is, in my opinion, essential.”