5 Concrete Steps Employers Must Take To Break Silence Around Breastfeeding At The Workplace

The disparity in laws and their enforcement often forces women in India to choose between their careers and children, leading to an “either-or” situation.

In the bustling city of Mumbai, amidst the clatter of keyboards and the murmur of office chatter, Meera*, a software developer and a new mother, faces a dilemma that stresses her daily routine. It is time to pump breast milk for her six-month-old son. While her office has a designated smoking area, there’s no lactation room in sight. The only place available to her is a cramped restroom stall that lacked privacy and cleanliness.

Meera’s predicament isn’t an isolated one; it’s shared by countless lactating mothers across corporate India, who juggle the dual demands of motherhood and career. While breastfeeding is a natural part of life, many workplaces in India treat it as an almost taboo subject, leaving women like Meera in uncomfortable situations, torn between their professional responsibilities and maternal instincts.

Societal norms dictate that we shy away from discussing breastfeeding, fueling the prevailing workplace taboo. However, as workplaces become increasingly diverse and inclusive, companies are beginning to recognise that supporting lactating mothers is not just a matter of equity or compliance but also a catalyst for enhancing employee loyalty, satisfaction, and productivity.

Addressing the issue of breastfeeding at work is crucial in dismantling gender barriers and ensuring that women do not have to choose between their careers and their children’s well-being.

The taboos surrounding breastfeeding in the workplace

Breastfeeding in the workplace in India is a subject mired in societal and cultural complexities. The need for clear policies supporting breastfeeding in the workplace reflects and perpetuates the cultural reluctance to discuss or accommodate it.

Here are some of the factors contributing to the ‘hush-hush’ halo around the subject:

  1. There is a pervasive belief that breastfeeding is a private activity that undermines the professional environment. This belief stems from the idea that society expects a woman to separate her role as a mother entirely from her identity as a professional.
  2. Cultural norms often dictate that women alone should handle child-rearing, including breastfeeding, and keep these activities confined to the home.
  3. The emphasis on modesty for women in many Indian cultures can create barriers to breastfeeding or expressing milk in a workplace setting, where privacy is often insufficient.
  4. Despite all the focus on DE&I, the workplaces in India, especially at the top end of the hierarchy, continue to be male-dominated ones, leading to a significant gap in awareness and support structures for breastfeeding mothers’ needs among employers.

Some real life instances

These real-life anecdotes illustrate the challenges emanating from a lack of support for breastfeeding at work:

  • Anita*, a financial analyst in Mumbai, faced a gruelling dilemma. Her infant son, who was not adapting well to bottle-feeding, needed her to nurse directly. With no provisions at her workplace for breastfeeding or pumping, Anita had no choice but to make an hour round trip commute home twice a day to feed her baby. This not only led to a significant loss of work hours but also added to her physical exhaustion and emotional stress.
  • Preeti*, a lecturer at a private college in Delhi, shared her story of returning to work post-maternity leave with dread. She would often have to miss out on important meetings or lecture slots because they clashed with her baby’s feeding times. The lack of scheduling flexibility and a private space to pump left her feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
  • Working in a predominantly male-dominated manufacturing plant in Pune, Manisha* found it daunting to even broach the topic of needing breaks for breastfeeding. The lack of female restrooms, let alone a lactation room, meant she eventually gave up breastfeeding earlier than she wanted to, impacting her child’s health and her emotional well-being.

These stories underline the urgent need for a shift in both mindset and policy to support breastfeeding mothers in the Indian workplace.

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The Maternity Benefit Act 2017: a right but incomplete step

The Maternity Benefit Act 2017 increased the maternity leave available to working women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for the first two children. It also introduced an option for nursing mothers to work from home, subject to the nature of employment and with mutual agreement between the woman and her employer. It further mandates a creche facility in every establishment with 50 or more employees, separate or along with shared facilities, allowing women four daily visits to the creche.

While the Act seeks to protect the rights of pregnant and nursing mothers, emphasising their entitlement to breastfeeding breaks, it stops short of specifying the nature and privacy of the space provided for breastfeeding or pumping, leaving room for varied interpretations and implementations across workplaces. While large companies like Accenture, TCS, Infosys and Google do provide separate lactation rooms and flexible work arrangements for nursing mothers, many of the small and medium enterprises that employ a bulk of the labour force are yet to adapt to this Act, leaving a lot of working mothers in uncertainty and doubt.

It would help if the Maternity Benefit Act were to borrow from the corresponding laws of its Western counterparts and be amended to make direct facilities, such as designated lactation rooms and specific accommodations for breastfeeding or milk expression, at the workplace. Some Western countries also impose fines and other penalties for non-compliance with workplace breastfeeding accommodations, a step which may result in better compliance in a developing country like India.

At present, the disparity in laws and their enforcement often forces women in India to choose between their careers and children, leading to an “either-or” situation. The inadequate support for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace is a significant factor contributing to many women dropping out of the workforce.

The path to inclusion: how can companies support breastfeeding mothers?

Creating a supportive and stigma-free environment for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace is more than a legislative issue; it’s about cultivating a culture that acknowledges and respects women’s dual roles as professionals and mothers. Traditional gender roles in India contribute to less urgency in providing workplace accommodations for breastfeeding. Companies must overcome gender stereotypes to promote and nurture an environment supporting mothers’ and children’s health and well-being as part of their organisation’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

A supportive workplace can significantly reduce the stress on lactating mothers, increase their engagement and productivity, and enhance employee retention. The following steps can help companies promote inclusion and support breastfeeding mothers:

Breastfeeding-friendly policies

Companies should develop clear, written policies that support breastfeeding. These policies must outline the rights and benefits available to lactating mothers, ensuring they are well-communicated during onboarding and through regular updates.

Lactation rooms

Employers should provide accessible, hygienic, private lactation rooms that are not bathrooms. Employers should equip these rooms with comfortable seating, a flat surface other than the floor for a breast pump and other supplies, and provide access to electricity for pumping equipment. Additionally, the employer should offer refrigeration facilities to store expressed milk safely. They must also locate these spaces conveniently to minimise the time mothers spend away from their workstations.

Flexible schedules

Flexibility in work schedules can be a tremendous support for breastfeeding mothers. Allowing new mothers to adjust their work hours to align with their baby’s feeding schedule or offering to work from home can significantly ease the stress of balancing work and breastfeeding.

Educational workshops

Companies should organise regular educational workshops and training programs for all employees to build a supportive workplace culture. These workshops can cover the importance of breastfeeding, how it benefits both the baby and the mother, and how coworkers can support lactating mothers.

Education helps normalise breastfeeding within the corporate environment and can break down barriers of misunderstanding and stigma.

Leading by example

Leadership plays a critical role in shaping company culture. When company leaders and influencers actively support and normalise breastfeeding, it sets a powerful example for the rest of the organisation. Leaders can demonstrate support by ensuring that breastfeeding-friendly policies are in place, practised, and respected. They can also acknowledge and celebrate breastfeeding mothers’ efforts, promoting a culture of acceptance and normalisation.

By implementing these steps, companies not only comply with legal requirements but also demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of their employees and their families.

Embracing inclusion goes beyond employer’s moral responsibility

Embracing inclusion in the workplace, especially for breastfeeding mothers, goes beyond moral responsibility; it offers tangible, long-term benefits for companies. A supportive environment improves employee morale, as individuals feel valued and understood by their employers. This nurturing atmosphere leads to greater employee loyalty and retention, reducing turnover costs and preserving organisational knowledge.

Moreover, it enhances diversity that leads to inclusion by enabling women to remain and advance in the workforce after childbirth.

By investing in breastfeeding facilities, companies will reap the rewards of a dedicated and diverse workforce, driving their success and reputation in the market.

The last word: foster inclusivity to nurture futures

The current scenario in India presents a dichotomy where breastfeeding, while celebrated as a vital aspect of motherhood, remains shrouded in silence within the workplace. The taboos and stigma associated with expressing milk at work are symptomatic of deep-rooted cultural norms that need to evolve. As the workplace diversifies and embraces inclusivity, we must challenge and change these outdated notions.

Bridging the gap between Indian laws and global standards is imperative for creating a genuinely inclusive environment. This alignment is not just about legal compliance but about embracing the spirit of diversity and inclusion that those laws represent. It’s about creating a workplace that not only accommodates but also celebrates every aspect of its employees’ lives, including motherhood.

Organisations should go beyond mere compliance and proactively cultivate a breastfeeding-friendly environment to create a more supportive, empathetic, and productive workplace.

The leaders of today should proactively act to transform the Indian workplace into a space where mothers can thrive without the fear of stigma or the stress of logistical nightmares. This is the least that working mothers deserve.

* Names changed to protect privacy.

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About the Author

Smita Das Jain

Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...

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