Published: June 20, 2019

Plenty of well-meaning employers support working mothers with legal protections and accommodations. But it takes more than that, says Sabrina Volpone, assistant professor of organizational leadership at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. In order for mothers to succeed at work, company policies are necessary but not sufficient.

Volpone examines the challenges of working mothers who breastfeed in her study, “When Work and Family Blend Together: Examining the Daily Experiences of Breastfeeding Mothers at Work.” She says new mothers struggle with pumping at work, even at seemingly “progressive” workplaces. Compared to stay-at-home moms, they’re less likely to continue breastfeeding once they return to work—and she wants to know why.

The unique quandaries of breastfeeding mothers
Volpone found that women struggle with the blurring of conflicting roles at work—mother vs. employee—and the identity clash is especially pronounced around pumping. The second thing she found: A supportive culture in the workplace is critical to well-being and work productivity. To be successful, nursing mothers require “breastfeeding compassion” at work as opposed to “breastfeeding stigma.”

Signs of a (truly) progressive workplace
When organizations ensure that social support accompanies resources, they achieve a workplace where breastfeeding employees thrive. Five factors are essential:

  • Role models and supportive supervisors
  • Accommodations for pumping at work
  • Respectful leaders, managers and coworkers
  • Legal compliance
  • Comprehensive childcare policies

Women in the study who worked at progressive companies said they found balance between work and family roles due to a supportive culture for their breastfeeding needs.

Others mentioned ways their coworkers showed compassion for their pumping needs or went out of their way to help. One woman said, “[My coworker] did pump a few years ago when she had her baby so she understands what it’s like…everybody was really amenable to making it easy for me to find a place to pump.”

Another participant recounted, “[My department] went off site to a restaurant…My boss actually…brought it up before I did. She said, ‘We have to find you a place to pump.’ She had her secretary…call the restaurant and tell them.”

Psychological safety, says Volpone, is critical. Feeling supported by colleagues in a work culture free from stigma and judgement is essential to women’s success.