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Nursing Inhibitions at the Office

By Liz Ryan If ever I'm in danger of overlooking the cultural changes within Corporate America during the past 20 years, I need only recall my childhood visits to Dad's office at a New York publishing house.

On one special occasion or another, my siblings and I would travel with our mom to his high-rise workplace and be fussed over by his secretary, Ramona, before heading off to Radio City or a relative's house. Here's what I remember besides the mid-1970s orange upholstery: All the big- and medium-shots were men, and all the secretaries were women. It was the '70s, after all.

INFANTILE ATTITUDE? So, change No. 1: Lots more of the nonsecretarial people in most companies today are women. Some women are even managers. That's why I'm surprised at another corporate phenomenon: the apparent don't-ask-don't-tell posture toward the feeding of small children.

I refer, of course, to the need new moms have to pump milk for the babies they leave at home while they're at work. Breast-feeding is more prevalent today than at any time since the invention of infant formula, and in order for a working mom to keep her milk supply going, she has to pump milk at least once in an eight-hour day. So, you'd expect the practice to be as accepted as a trip to the photocopier.

It isn't, according to many working women. In fact, many of them report confusion -- and reactions ranging from embarrassment to horror -- when they inquire about their employers' facilities for pump-carrying moms.

NO SHAME. When it comes to lactation, the prevalent corporate attitude is don't-ask-don't-tell. If a woman can find a corner in the ladies' room to pump away without disturbing anyone, probably no one will object. But if she proposes an amenity or two, such as a lactation room or a place to store a freshly pumped bottle, human resources people and her manager may recoil in horror.

It's milk, people, not live Ebola spores or the blood of Dracula's victims. We're grownups. And we can get past corporate lactose intolerance, if we try.

And we do have to try. Recently, I sent a pumping-practices survey to more than 1,000 human resources leaders who belong to two e-mail discussion groups, HRColorado and HRIllinois. I asked them for copies or descriptions of their company's policies regarding milk-pumping at work.

INFO VACUUM. Here's what I got back: zilch. My queries on issues such as Internet usage policies, dress codes, and the like have yielded dozens or scores of responses. Milk, however, is a far more challenging problem, judging by the silence of my loyal pen pals.

If you want to get a new stapler, schedule some vacation, or conduct almost any other business activity, your company can hand you a form or point you to a Web site that tells you what to do. There are even policies for actions that any halfway competent adult can perform without direction, like swiping an ID badge through a card reader. Pumping milk at work is fairly logistically challenging, especially for new moms, and fairly intimidating socioculturally. There are questions that demand answers, such as: Where do I store the milk after I pump it? Walk it down the hall to the fridge? What if someone pours it in his coffee?

FAMILY-FRIENDLY EXAMPLE. Employers could make this a whole lot easier, by creating friendly flyers that read something like this:

"Dear New Mom,

Congratulations on your arrival! We're happy to support you in breast-feeding your baby. If you have your own breast pump, you can store it in the office services department. There are lactation rooms on Floors 9 and 17, which you need to reserve in advance.

There are labels in each lactation room to use for your milk once it's bottled, and a small refrigerator where you can store it for the day. There's a sink, if you need to pump-and-dump, plus a jack for your laptop. Good luck! If you have questions about breast-feeding or pumping, Martin Andrews in human resources can connect you with a lactation specialist through our Employee Assistance Program.


Chuck R, CEO

XYZ Corporation"

TINY INVESTMENT. Wouldn't it say worlds about a company to offer this tidbit of encouragement and validation to moms? The cost of the lactation room/fridge/pump setup comes in at under $1,000 (I'm imagining a converted broom closet) in any U.S. city, union labor costs excluded. Wouldn't such a modest gesture suggest that we mean what we say about employees being our greatest asset, about our support for working women, and about our commitment to work-life priorities? Doesn't our silence speak volumes as well? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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