Sustaining Breastfeeding When Working

After the birth of my daughter, a combination of the strong bond I had developed with her and my choice and commitment to at least six months of exclusive breastfeeding meant that I was stressed about returning to work.

Thankfully, my fears were allayed by a strong support system that helped with the transition and supported my goals. Advancements such as improved legislation on parental leave and nursing care, allocation of nursing rooms, breastfeeding breaks and institutional mechanisms for redressing grievances are some of the progressive arrangements that have been adopted in the workplace to recognise breastfeeding as a woman’s right.

In 2004, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) launched the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) to assess and monitor key breastfeeding policies and programmes. One inherent strength of the process is that it brings together actors working on various issues on one platform, and since then, IBFAN reports that the collaborative efforts have resulted in improved maternity protection measures in many countries.

One of the areas that has signified progress in many countries is legislation on maternity leave. While the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommends a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity benefit for women, many countries have gone above and beyond this. In India, for example, the National Maternity Benefit Act 1961 was amended to increase maternity leave to 26 weeks from existing 12 weeks for employees in organized sector. The revised Act also provides Crèche facilities in workplaces with more than 50 employees and flexibility to work from home.

Despite marked progress, there remains a lot of ground to cover. The National Union of Bank Employees (NUBE) in Malaysia highlights the lack of awareness of women’s rights. NUBE launched the Maternity Leave campaign in 2010 to incorporate the right to 90-days paid maternity leave into a Collective Agreement with employers in the banking industry. Building on its success, NUBE now engages with a wide group of stakeholders to extend this provision to benefit women workers in the industry. By reiterating the importance of breastfeeding, they continue to educate young mothers about their rights at work particularly child care and lactation rights.

Similarly, the Centre for Research on Women and Gender (KANITA) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) works to address the issue of women exercising their rights to maternity protection. These include prenatal issues such as protection from employment dismissal while pregnant and postnatal matters such as breastfeeding and reasonable child care facilities while working. KANITA collaborated with Middlesex University to identify gaps and map research areas of maternity protection and implementation in Malaysia.

“The research is novel in many ways as it aims to open pathways to deeper studies that will continue to build the business case for institutionalizing and expanding the scope of comprehensive maternity protection at the workplace.” – KANITA

Finally, there is need to recognize, reduce and redistribute care work that is primarily done by women and girls. In no country in the world, regardless of the level of development, do men and women do an equal amount of care work. MenCare, a global fatherhood campaign with partners in over 40 countries on five continents, emphasize: 

“Full equality will not be reached at home or in the workforce until men and boys globally take on 50 percent of the unpaid care and domestic work.”

They highlight that care work being undervalued both socially and economically and thought of traditionally as ‘women’s work’ is problematic. As an advocacy strategy, MenCare launched the first ever State of the World’s Fathers report in 2015, providing a global view of the state of men’s contribution to parenting and caregiving around the world, which has inspired multiple translations, national reports and advocacy.

From the research and advocacy work required to legislate maternity protection, to education and information dissemination targeting attitude change and shift in social norms, to integrating women’s issues in the undertakings of trade unions – efforts to make workplaces more breastfeeding friendly and thus empower women to breastfeed and work can only be achieved through multi-level partnerships. 

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

Why do women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men do?

While women are making strides toward gender equality in the US and across the world, it is well documented that women still earn less than men for the same work, even when their educational backgrounds are comparable. Non-Hispanic white women in the US earn 77 cents for every dollar that white males earn, African American women earn 64 cents for every dollar, and Hispanic women 55 cents for every dollar.  This gap is not proving to narrow with time.

Not only do women make less than men in similar occupations, women are more often employed in low-income careers compared to men. Statistics show that women in the US tend to choose careers that are historically “female” – and coincidentally these positions tend to pay less too.

Image1WomenintheWorkForceA recent New York Times article indicated that this past December all employment gains in the US went to women, however, all of those jobs were “concentrated in low-wage sectors”.  This is due to various factors, but the following information may provide some insight.

An article published in the journal Organization Science explores whether women choose different careers than men and how their choices impact gender equality in the work force. The article suggests that differences in career choices for men and women can be “partly explained by women’s preferences for jobs with better anticipated work-life balance, lower identification with stereotypically masculine jobs, and lower expectations of job offer success in such stereotypically masculine jobs.”

It is a widely held belief that if women set higher expectations for their salaries or careers, the income gap between men and women would decrease.

So do we simply conclude that women are less driven than men? Is this what women want? OF COURSE NOT.

Image2WomenintheWorkForceAlthough women have been making advances in male-dominated occupations, women still typically choose careers that are “female oriented” such as healthcare, business services, and education. Why? It is a matter of historical and deeply rooted ideas about gender roles that also sustain the income gap. Women’s career choices stem from what society tells women they can or cannot do. An article from the Guardian (discussing the job market in England, but is reminiscent of what is happening in the US) explains, “The labor market has become a much harsher place for young people over the past 20 years, especially for young women. Women (are) trapped in low wage positions because they are still being channeled down traditional paths.”

Further, research shows that women actually do set lower salary expectations than men. A fascinating article from Forbes helped me understand the situation clearly. A study of about 66,000 college undergraduates projecting their salary for their first full-time job found that women expected to earn $49,248 annually while men’s expected earnings were $56,947. These projections are not based on the fact that women think they should earn less, expect less for their work, or are less driven than men. The figures the students projected were actually very closely aligned with what they would earn upon entering the workforce. Both male and female projections came from informed research, through speaking with someone in their chosen field, or using online resources.

Image3 WomenintheWorkForceAlthough it is important to negotiate higher salaries, Meghan Casserly of Forbes says it is not a feasible option for individuals seeking entry-level work in the current economy. Young people entering the work force today do not have much flexibility to bargain for higher salaries. Women are actually making appropriate decisions to ensure attaining a position in their career of choice.

The income gap is not something that is true only when discussing women who work in lower paying positions. Casserly mentions that life is not “much sweeter at the highest of highs.” Casserly writes, “A recent Bloomberg study of the compensation of the best-paid female leaders in the United States indicates an average take-home salary of $5.3 million dollars—roughly 18% less than their male peers.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with choosing a traditionally “female” profession, but we should be reminded that we do not need to be confined in those sectors and jobs.

Casserly suggests two solutions to remove the disparity:

1. Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act which would make it illegal for men and women who perform equal work to receive different pay.

2. Instill “salary transparency” starting at the top which would set a “trickle-down precedent” and eventually affect women at all levels.

Some organizations that work toward  girls’ success in typically male-dominated fields include:

Girls Who Code

Black Girls Code

BBC Expert Women’s Days

STEM Education


Girl Develop It

Check out their websites to find out how to show your support!