The Discrimination for Moms at Work

SIX WEEKS AFTER GIVING BIRTH TO HER FIRST CHILD, Hanna, L. Martha was back on the job. A successful analyst for a large export firm in Battle Creek, MI, Martha had hoped to gradually wean her baby off breast milk and get him to accept formula before she returned to work. But even the tiniest newborn can throw a heavy wrench into the best-laid plans: Hunter, otherwise healthy, was allergic to formula. “We’d give him formula and he’d throw it up immediately; he couldn’t sleep and then would cry and cry,” recalls Martha, 29, a petite, determined woman with short blond hair. Breast milk was the only option.

So on her first day back at work, Martha came equipped with a breast pump, figuring she could express milk at work–either in a spare conference room or in the company bathroom. No problem–that is, until two days later, when her boss came back from vacation and refused to allow her to pump anywhere on company property. “He said people would figure out what I was doing, even in the bathroom. It would disrupt the work environment and make people feel uncomfortable.” He told her this was just one of those times when she’d have to choose between work and family.

Martha dutifully headed for her Volkswagen, parked in the office complex lot, in the middle of a summer heat wave. “It was over 100 degrees,” she recalls. “I’d try to park in the shade, where no one could see me, but it’s a public lot–people drive in and out at all different times. It was humiliating.” Expressing breast milk can be difficult for a new mother (it can take a while to master a breast pump), and Martha was no exception. “Under normal circumstances, it’s hard. But with all this going on, wondering if people were watching, it was really not working. I couldn’t get very much; then I’d get afraid for the baby. What would we do? What could he eat?”

A few days later a male acquaintance took pity on her, offering an empty conference room on his floor. Then her supervisor found out. Even though the conference room belonged to another company, he flipped. Eight days after returning from maternity leave, Martha was fired.

Then she did what any sensible woman would do: She hired a lawyer. But Martha’s attorney couldn’t find any laws protecting a woman from this unique brand of discrimination. Afraid of a prolonged lawsuit and of having to pay all the court and attorneys’ fees if she lost, Martha decided to settle out of court. Her company escaped a public trial but earned national derision, winning The Wall Street Journal’s Much Ado About Nothing Award for terminating her.

An odd, one-of-a-kind occurrence? Unfortunately, no. All across the nation, working mothers who want to feed their babies breast milk are facing harassment, threats, ridicule, and even the possible loss of their jobs. It’s only rarely an issue of women bringing their babies to work and breast-feeding; most mothers go to great lengths to discreetly pump milk in private. Still, they are being scorned and intimidated at a time when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strenuously recommends that new mothers breast-feed for the first year of their babies’ lives.

Donna Cok is a prime example of a mother caught in the middle. A respiratory therapist working the night shift at a nursing-care center outside Spokane, WA, she had pumped breast milk for her previous child, Caytlyn, during her breaks without a hitch. Her husband, Brad, who worked during the day and went to school part-time, gave Caytlyn her bottles at night. The Coks had moved from Willard, OH, to Spokane to pursue a dream: Donna worked nights at the center, and Brad chucked his work as a truck driver (neither of them wanted Dad on the road all the time) to earn a degree in physical therapy. Their schedule allowed them to divide child-care responsibilities and raise their kids in a beautiful mountain setting.

Things in the Coks’ carefully ordered world were going fine–until their newborn daughter, Mikaela, decided she didn’t want her breast milk in a bottle. And protested. Loudly.

“She took a bottle right before I went to work, but then a few hours into my first shift my husband called me,” says Cok, 37, a brown-eyed brunette with a big dimpled smile. Nothing Brad did was working, so after about 20 minutes of Mikaela’s yelling he ran up the white flag and piled the kids into the family van for the 25-minute trip to his wife’s workplace. “Mikaela had been crying so much, her eyes were almost swollen shut,” recalls Cok.

When she called about her schedule the next day, she was stunned to learn she had been pulled from the schedule. It seemed that nursing at the nursing-care center wasn’t an option. “My supervisor said that if there was a chance I’d have to breast-feed the baby like that again–even if I did it on my regular break time–they couldn’t let me work there,” Cok says. She was told that pumping milk on her breaks was fine, but leaving the building to breast-feed in the parking lot was another story; that would put her too far away from her patients, many of whom were on life support. Cok was puzzled–and peeved.

Her co-workers routinely left the premises for coffee or smoking breaks, or to make quick runs to the bank and grocery store, and that didn’t seem to make anyone’s alarm bells go off. And breast-feeding in the parking lot was a response to an emergency–not something she planned on doing regularly. “It really angered me,” she says. “They acted like I would neglect my patients, when those patients were like family to me.”

Convinced that her supervisor’s policy was both unfair and illegal, Cok also took her case to a lawyer. “This was my unpaid break we were talking about,” she says. “At what point can an employer dictate to an employee what they do with their personal time off?” In June 1999 she got her answer: A jury sided with the center. Overwhelmed by enormous debt–more than $100,000 in legal and other costs–the Coks were forced to move back to Ohio, near their families. Brad’s pursuit of a degree had to be put on hold, and he’s now working as an inspector for the railroad.


For women who return to work after a short maternity leave, formula has long been the most convenient choice. But in the last three years a mountain of evidence extolling breast milk’s long-term health benefits has surfaced, resulting in more working mothers choosing to breast-feed. Or trying to. In a strongly worded statement issued last March, Donald Cook, M.D., the president of the AAP (which represents 55,000 pediatricians across the U.S.), expressed dismay that “not enough babies in this country are breast-fed and few are breast-fed for the recommended one year.” Acknowledging the growing crisis in the workplace, he went on to say that “a woman certainly should not be fired or discriminated against for … expressing breast milk during her own lunchtime or break time.”

In Washington, DC, Representative Carolyn Maloney has been inundated with horror stories from breast-feeding women who’ve been fired. “It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes,” says Maloney, a Democrat from New York and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. “One woman told us that co-workers would stand outside her door and moo. She’d pass by one colleague and he would ask her for some milk for his coffee.”

The tales are woeful: A Minnesota florist was fired even before returning from maternity leave simply for mentioning that she’d like to express breast milk at some point during the workday; another woman, an employee at a large toy store in Niagara Falls, NY, was denied permission to pump milk at work for her ailing premature infant. (She was later allowed to express milk on the premises but was told to do it in the dirty public rest room, even though there were clean spare rooms available.)

“In the past, people have seen breast-feeding as a lifestyle issue,” says Elizabeth Baldwin, a Miami-based attorney and legal adviser for LaLeche League who handles about 60 calls each month from women who fear they are putting their jobs at risk by breast-feeding. “But the American Academy of Pediatrics is saying `No, it’s not.’ You’re talking about protecting children against juvenile diabetes, childhood leukemia, lymphoma. It’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a health choice.

“Breast-feeding has skipped a few generations, so co-workers may not view it the same way,” admits Baldwin. “They might see baby formula as simpler” and view the woman who makes it known that she needs to express milk at work as creating unnecessary complications. But there’s also an undercurrent of guilt and defensiveness. “Some of the time the problem is women bosses who may not have breast-fed their own children,” says Baldwin. “They may feel implied criticism of their own choices if another woman is insisting she needs to breast-feed.”

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Angela Matlock, 29, a teller at an Oklahoma City credit union, says that indeed it was her female bosses who chided her most when she returned to work after her maternity leave and decided to try expressing milk on her breaks for her baby boy, Zane. Her first day back, she spent ten minutes of her 15-minute break in the company bathroom, pumping milk. She was immediately reprimanded, though she’d tried to be quick and discreet. “I guess they had someone stand outside the door to listen,” she says. Later that day she received an official memo taking her to task for using her breaks to attend to her “maternal duties”–even though other employees could use their breaks for whatever purposes they chose.

The double standard appeared to be nothing more than prejudice passed off as vague company policy. One female manager declared breast-feeding “gross,” insisting that “only poor women” nursed their babies. “They’d tell me I was paid enough money; why didn’t I buy baby formula?” recalls Matlock, who wanted to do everything as organically as possible for her first baby, from natural childbirth to hand-chopping Zane’s food and cooking it herself. Her supervisors publicly declared how “backward” such efforts were.

Matlock tried hard to accommodate the bank’s needs in exchange for being allowed to express milk. She even offered to punch out during her two daily breaks and forgo being paid for the ten minutes she took; and she volunteered to take lunch in the unpopular 11 a.m. slot. But her bosses opposed her request to be allowed to express milk at work at suitable times, even after her doctor and midwife provided notes explaining why they felt it was important for her baby’s health. Eventually it became clear to her that if she continued defying her bosses’ orders, she’d lose her job.

For a while she pumped breast milk on the sly while sitting on the toilet, answering inquiring knocks on the bathroom door with lies, and crying quietly in panic when the milk didn’t flow under all the beat-the-clock pressure. Eventually she surrendered: She quit trying to pump at work and put her baby on formula. Her standing at the bank improved; within months she was promoted.


For all of its professed progressive attitudes toward working mothers, the truth is that the United States is way behind most nations when it comes to accommodating their needs. China, Japan, and Argentina allow breast-feeding women two paid 30-minute breaks each day; some European countries are even more generous, giving new mothers returning to work two hours of paid breaks each workday.

Some congressional and state legislators are pushing to bring this country up to speed. Maloney has drafted legislation amending the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which protects women against discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions, to specifically include breast-feeding.

The federal amendment would use civil rights statutes to protect women from being fired or intimidated for expressing milk or breast-feeding during breaks or lunch. Happily, the bill is getting increasing bipartisan support from female and male lawmakers. “When we first introduced the bill in the House, we started getting all these phone calls from senate offices–from some very senior members, many of whom were very conservative,” says Maloney. “I thought, Hey! This is great, they’re interested in it. Turns out it was their staff members who were interested. They’re young, want children, and want the freedom to make these kinds of choices.”

Several states–California, Florida, Texas, and Oregon–have already passed measures encouraging workplaces to accommodate nursing mothers. In 1977, Minnesota became the first state to require employers to supply break time for expressing milk and a private place to do it. Tennessee now has a similar law, and Hawaii has legislation prohibiting discrimination against nursing mothers in the workplace.

But changing cultural attitudes won’t be easy. Up until 1999, a woman could be evicted from U.S. federal property for breast-feeding in public. One woman was ordered to stop nursing in a national park because the park ranger thought breast milk “would attract bees.” And just last summer a University of Winnipeg political scientist was barred from nursing her 5-month-old son while attending meetings at a UN conference. The issue topping the agenda? Helping women balance work and family.


Some businesses aren’t waiting for government direction but are stepping in now to solve the problem. And they’re discovering that helping nursing workers contributes to employee retention, reduced absenteeism, and dollar-for-dollar savings in health-care costs.

At family-friendly companies, like Aetna, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and CIGNA, pregnant employees get a package of information on breast-feeding and expressing milk, and discounted or free breast pumps. They’re also entitled to prenatal and postpartum phone calls to or visits with a lactation consultant. When they return to work, they have access to a “lactation station”–a private room where they can express milk and wash and store bottles. The nursing mother’s station at PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, is usually a simple private office with a few homey touches: a phone, maybe a refrigerator. The room’s most important feature, according to mothers who’ve used it? A door that locks.

“Most of us don’t live near our mothers or grandmothers, and a lot of social support must come from the workplace,” says Catherine L. Hawkes, assistant vice president of employee health at CIGNA, where 78 percent of the 38,000-member workforce is female. “If women know that breast-feeding while working is doable, then they’ll make the decision to breast-feed. Otherwise, they’ll say `What’s the point? Why should I start if I have to give it up in six weeks?”

Company lactation programs remain few and far between–for now. “It reminds me of the child-care issue,” says Rona Cohen, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who has helped set up such programs at JP Morgan, Ceridian Corporation, and other companies. “It took ten years after studies declared a `child-care crisis’ for the idea to take a foothold. I see breast-feeding following that same pattern.”

It’s a workplace issue that is already attracting activists–namely, women who’ve been victimized by this unusual form of discrimination and who want to do what they can to protect others. Once Angela Matlock gave up trying to breast-feed her son and no longer needed to pump milk at work, her supervisors seemed to forget the tremendous strain they put her under. But she never did. At the first opportunity, she took a better job at another company. Still, she remains incredulous at how she was treated and has flown to Washington to lobby for laws that would protect women in similar situations. “That was the worst time in my life,” she says. “I hope no one has to go through what I did, just to try to do what I thought was right for my child.”


That breast milk is generally beneficial has long been known. But now researchers can be specific. “These facts were not known 20 years ago,” says Lawrence Gartner, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on breast-feeding. “Most of the research has come out in the last 15 years, and a lot of it within the last five years.” The benefits:


* Reduced risk of ear infections, diarrhea, meningitis, and urinary tract infections. May also reduce the risk of allergies, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lymphoma, and sudden infant death syndrome.


* Reduced risk of postpartum complications and an earlier return to prepregnancy weight, generally within a year.

* A lower risk of osteoporosis, and as much as a 40 percent lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers.


* Aetna Inc. found that the fewer medical expenses and fewer workdays missed by the parents of breast-fed babies can total $2,500 saved per newborn in the first year alone.

* After establishing a program for nursing mothers, another insurer, CIGNA, saved $240,000 a year in health-care expenses, plus another $60,000 in reduced absenteeism.

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