Is breastfeeding at work acceptable?

It's still a taboo for a lot of people, but sometimes employers have to bend a little.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 08 Jun 2017

‘When I was director of a publishing company, I was asked to come into work two weeks after I had my second child to take part in a client re-pitch. I was happy to do so as I would be working with them if we retained the work,’ says Cathy Hayward, MD of Magenta Associates.

‘We agreed that I would bring the baby with me, and my husband, who worked for the same company, would look after her while I was in the meeting. I had to feed the baby before the meeting and they suggested I do so in the loo. It was either that or the HR office (which was staffed by women). I chose the loo!’

I’m going to upfront here – I never thought I’d be writing about breastfeeding for Management Today. Just didn’t think it would come up at all. The whole ‘breastfeeding in public’ debate seemed to me to be consigned to stories about women evicted mid-meal by prudish restaurateurs. It didn’t have anything to do with business... 

But of course it does. You cannot separate work from life, and breastfeeding is a fact of life for many working mothers. It’s true that you don’t often see it in the office or indeed the boardroom. Most mothers of small babies, needing regular feeds, are to be found on maternity leave. Yet stories like Hayward’s are far from rare. Indeed, look at the case of Larissa Waters, the Australian senator who caused a media storm by breastfeeding in her national parliament recently.

Is it acceptable? Well why not? Babies are distracting, that’s true. They cry, they need nappies changing, they’re sick quite a lot. All other things being equal, the office is a more productive place without them.

All other things aren’t equal, though, are they? If you don’t want women bringing babies to work on the exceptional occasions where it might be necessary, then you effectively have to ban them, whether formally or just by giving a hostile response. That’s some alternative – ordering mothers to leave their baby at a nursery, or else. 

Is that the kind of employer you want to be, giving ultimatums that force parents to choose between family and work? Even if being decent doesn’t motivate you, the impact such behaviour would have on your talent pool should give pause for thought.

You’re much more likely to retain parent employees if you show them you’re willing to bend a little to accommodate the demands of parenthood (for fathers and mothers – this really is part of a bigger issue), rather than telling them to put up or shut up.  

‘It’s a great inspiration for younger women,’ adds Miki Haines-Sanger, founder and MD of Golden Goose PR, who used to take her six-week-old son to new business briefings and meetings with blue-chip tech companies. ‘You can have a baby and don’t drop off the face of the earth. You’re still in the game.’

Still a taboo?

The issue isn’t just about the presence of babies, of course. There’s still a taboo about breastfeeding itself, when it happens in public places.

‘I found breastfeeding to be very distracting for anyone who wasn't used to it, I had a cover but lots of women don't and I think if a woman were to breast feed in a meeting the other members would be very distracted.  I was stared at a lot in a personal environment so heavens knows what it would be like in a business environment,’ says Natasha Mockett, founder of Write My Name, which makes handwriting books for three to seven-year-olds.

Breastfeeding doesn’t have to be out in the open though, and even if it is, it certainly doesn’t have to be an exhibition. ‘There are ways to breast feed discreetly and with dignity with people present,’ says Haines-Sanger. ‘The trick is to breastfeed your baby before the meeting and to really wear them out before the meeting by playing together or taking the train and having them on your lap, anything like that. Then they have a big feed and you have your meeting with a sleeping baby.’

It may take some adjustment before you have a company culture that’s tolerant of breastfeeding, but there may be no choice.

‘Whilst there still does seem to be a stigma amongst employers and some employees alike regarding breastfeeding at work, it needs to be remembered that the law does protect women who wish to breastfeed or express milk. A failure to allow flexible arrangements for breastfeeding could amount to unlawful discrimination,’ says Ian Dawson, partner and head of employment at Shulmans LLP.

Health and safety legislation also requires employers to provide suitable facilities for breastfeeding mothers, he adds. ‘Toilets are not regarded as "suitable facilities".’

There’s a strong argument that we will never have gender equality until women stop taking a career penalty for having children. Being tolerant of breastfeeding may not seem like much, but if intolerance of it perpetuates that career penalty, perhaps it’s time to get over it.

What do you think? We asked a few people in MT’s contact book for their opinions, but why not add to the debate in the comments section below?

‘I have breastfed at work and had a supportive employer. I have also made [my business] a breastfeeding friendly employer... Breastfeeding mothers will only have more respect and give back to employers that are sympathetic and support them. If a mother can [do it] easily and without fear of judgement or invasion of privacy, more British mothers would feel at ease to breastfeed. It’s possible to build a great working environment and encourage breastfeeding.’  - Cat Gazzoli, founder of baby food company Piccolo.

‘I think the issue of women breastfeeding in public is hugely overblown. Women should be able to feed their babies everywhere, but there needs to be a compromise. Breastfeeding should be done discreetly whether in the office or in a public space. There’s no need to use breastfeeding to make a political point.’ – Cathy Hayward (see above)

‘If we as a society accept that breastfeeding is important then it's important, regardless of where you are, at work or at home’ - Paul Makoff-Clark, MD of Kent Safety Solutions


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