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How Breastfeeding Can Hurt Careers

As some women push to get breast feeding accommodations in the workplace, nursing mothers should be aware of a potential backlash. A new study found that women who were breastfeeding were described by others as less competent, less capable in math and less likely to be hired.

Is this sexism at play?

Many past studies have found that pregnant women, menstruating women, and mothers in general are more likely to be judged as less competent than others (including new fathers). This study from the University of Montana adds to the body of reproductive bias literature.

The study included several scenarios.

  1. First, two groups of college students were shown brief biographies of Brooke Shields. They were told that she had written a book about her experiences as a mother. But one group was told that the book included a description of her breast feeding experiences, while the other group was told that she had bottle-fed her baby. The group that thought Ms. Shields breastfed rated her as less competent, less good at math, and thought that she was more likely to experience sexism in her career compared to the bottle-feeding condition.
  2. In another scenario, college kids were paired up with women and asked to rate the woman based on some profile information provided. During the session, the woman received a planned voice mail message that was loud enough for the college kid to hear. The researchers provided four different messages. One suggested that the woman was breast-feeding. A second message suggested that she was a mother, a third implied she owned a strapless bra, and the fourth was neutral. The women who received the breast-feeding message or the message about the sexy bra were rated lower in math and work competence and were less likely to be hypothetically hired by their partners than the women who received the other messages.
The authors attribute the biases to the objectification of breasts (as milk-producing or sexual) in our society. Objects can't think or have feelings, i.e., the objectified women can't think or be competent. In both studies, both male and female college kids had the same perception of breast feeding women.

In concluding, the authors write: "In three studies, results showed that mothers who breastfeed are subject to the opinion that breastfeeding mothers are incompetent." This occurred despite the fact that none of the women were actually visibly breastfeeding. There was simply the suggestion of breast feeding. The authors acknowledge that the subjects were young and did not have children themselves, and the results need to be replicated with older subjects.

So what should new moms do?

  • The authors are not advocating women don't breastfeed. Quite the contrary. They believe that the more women who breastfeed, and insist on accommodations at work, the more normalized it will become. "With time, greater numbers of women who breastfeed translates to less prejudice," the authors write. Plus, breastfeeding has a long list of benefits for the mom and the baby.
  • Women should, however, be aware of potential biases that their breastfeeding might engender.
  • It would be wise for everyone to be more aware of the subconscious judgments they make of nursing mothers.
Have you seen any bias against nursing mothers?


Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Daquella manera
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