One in three breastfeeding women is forced to express milk in bathrooms when they return to work due to lack of suitable facilities, research has found.
A survey of 2,000 mothers revealed thousands of women were encountering a “shocking lack of support” when returning to work, with 56 per cent saying they had to express milk in unsuitable places, including the staff room (18 per cent), their car (14 per cent) and at their desk (11 per cent).
As a result, 30 per cent encountered problems while trying to express, including issues with their supply, infections and anxiety. These difficulties caused almost a third (30 per cent) to stop earlier than they would have liked.
Paula Chan, specialist employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, which conducted the research, said the results were concerning. “No mother should feel forced to express milk for her child in a toilet. People would be horrified at the thought of food being prepared in such unhygienic conditions so it’s unacceptable that we are in a situation where that is considered an option when preparing milk for a baby.”
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Currently the law only states that breastfeeding mothers should have a place to rest, and does not require an employer to grant paid breaks from a job in order to breastfeed or to express milk for storage.
However, Chan said it was vital employers recognised that supporting breastfeeding women was not only a matter of safeguarding their health and wellbeing, but would ensure they retained key talent.
This sentiment was echoed by Joeli Brearley, founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. “Forcing women to use a toilet to create food for their baby is not only unhygienic, but it makes female employees feel embarrassed and undervalued in the workplace,” she said.
“If companies are serious about recruiting, retaining and promoting women, then they need to make their workplaces work for women.”
Of the women surveyed, seven in 10 said their employer never broached the subject before they returned to work, leaving them to raise the issue themselves. However, 29 per cent said they were too embarrassed to have a conversation about breastfeeding.
Feeling unable to approach the topic with their boss left many experiencing negative consequences, such as embarrassing leaks (22 per cent), exclusion from conversations (13 per cent) and missing out on important meetings (11 per cent).
In a case study given to the researchers, a 36-year-old pharmaceutical worker who had just started at a company told of how she felt unable to leave a meeting when she felt herself lactating.
“I hadn’t had the chance to express before the meeting had started and ended up leaking all over my shirt. I had to spend the rest of the meeting trying to cover the wet stains with my blazer. I didn't feel I was able to leave and just sat there. It was so embarrassing,” she said.
While many bosses appeared to be supportive, half of breastfeeding mothers returning to work said their employer didn’t know what to do, didn’t have any facilities or felt embarrassed by the conversation.
Brearley said: “Returning to work after a period of parental leave is the point at which many women fall off the career ladder, or leave their jobs to work elsewhere; often this is because companies expect these women to carry on exactly as they had before with no regard for their personal circumstances.
“Companies spend fortunes on graduate schemes but fail to retain the talent they already have because they don’t put enough thought or resource into looking after employees who return from maternity leave.”