Lactation Rooms and Income Inequality

Last week (April 21st, to be precise), the new lactation room in Appleby Hall opened , giving new mothers a quiet, comfortable place to nurse or pump milk. This addition brings the total number of designated lactation rooms at the University of Minnesota to ten. I took some time over the last week to find out what other Big Ten schools have to offer their lactating mothers, and the results were…surprising, actually.

The good news is, we’re doing better than Purdue. They only have one such room, so hey, there’s that.

The bad news? The University of Iowa has thirty locations. They also have at least 20,000 fewer students, so yeah, we’re a little behind.

Why are these lactation rooms so important, though?

Well, besides the fact that they give new mothers a clean, private space in which to nurse or pump, they also allow moms to return to work sooner while keeping their newborns healthy. As this article explains, breast feeding has proven health benefits for both child and mother, so there are plenty of obvious reasons behind moms’ decisions to continue breastfeeding for longer than their allotted maternity leave would otherwise allow. Designated lactation rooms, which are now required in most workplaces, give mothers a new option for returning to work – the embarrassment of breast pumping in toilet stalls or (gasp!) where others can see is eliminated, which is one less reason for moms to take an extended maternity leave. Women will no longer have to choose between going back to work and doing something healthy and important for their child, which is clearly to everyone’s benefit.

But, uh, do we have to talk about this? I mean, c’mon, breastfeeding? You’re not a mom, Kelsey, why do you even care? Well, concerned citizen/disembodied voice, I am glad you asked. You see, while I wholeheartedly support the drive for more family-friendly options in the workplace (like lactation rooms, child care alternatives, etc.), they are just the level challenges that lead up to the final boss of wage inequality. I know, it might sound a little crazy, but just hear me out.

First, let us consider the policies surrounding parental leave, using the U of M as an example. Here, female employees are granted up to six weeks of paid maternity leave if they give birth, but only two weeks of paid leave are granted if their new child was adopted. New fathers, however, are only given two weeks of paid paternity leave after either birth or adoption. Sure, this might seem somewhat reasonable – the lady DID just go through the entire pregnancy and birthing process, she deserves some rest with her new baby – but it has very predictable consequences.

First, it sets up women to become the automatic caregivers for their children. While the father has to go back to work, the woman has four more weeks to stay with the baby, learning its habits and problems far more quickly than the less-present father. When dad is with the new baby and doesn’t know exactly what to do, he’ll ask mom – she’s already been with the infant far more than he has, so it’s reasonably assumed that she knows the answers. This behavior doesn’t end when the mother goes back to work, though. Mom has become the de facto expert on the baby, so she easily takes on tasks like bringing the child to the doctor or finding a preschool. This is one of the biggest reasons behind the disparity in parent-teacher conference attendance rates – nearly 70% of mothers attended their children’s conferences, but only about 40% of fathers did the same. Different job demands or even mythical “sex-based predispositions” can explain this, since in single-parent families this difference was only 7% as opposed to the over 30% difference seen in two-parent families.

The second major consequence of unequal parental leave is the wage gap between men and women. Think about it – you’ve done your interviews and have decided to hire a nice, smart young woman. Since 82.5 million women in the U.S. have had children, the odds are that this one will chose to have kids at some point or another too. So, okay, that’ll be six weeks of paid leave right there (and who knows how much more UNpaid leave after that), and then come the sick kid, the conferences, the doctor’s appointments, and all the other activities and worries that come with the new baby. To you, the woman’s potential employer, all of these distractions are really starting to add up! You know that, as an intelligent and responsible lady, this new employee will definitely try her best to be at work for her required hours…but will she be productive? Can anyone be productive when they know that their six year old is at home with a fever, their oldest has their first soccer game, and why hasn’t the doctor’s office called back about that strep test?

Suddenly, it seems pretty reasonable to start cutting a few digits of that salary down. A couple hundred for the maternity leave, a few more for the reduced productivity, and a few more bucks because hey, then it’s an even number! This, and a shocking variety of other factors, makes up the 23.5% income gap between genders that was seen in 2009. Even when the differences in the types of jobs worked, education, experiences, and all other factors are accounted for, a sizable portion of this gap is still unaccounted for. There is one more factor, though, but it still doesn’t completely explain this phenomenon – if anything, it reinforces the patterns of behavior I mentioned before. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women work only 44% of the U.S.’s total working hours (the hourly wage rate for men is still higher than for women, though). Those doctor’s appointments the employer was worried about, those conferences that moms tend to attend in place of dads? They add up – children’s activities and house chores end up on mom’s to-do list, which combine seamlessly with societal gender roles to put the domestic ball squarely in the woman’s court.

So, here’s the deal – women are, on average, paid less than men for equal work due to a combination of preexisting biases. They get an extra month of parental leave that employers try to make up for, which usually ends with them being the go-to authority on all things baby-related. This continues, the household chores slide her way, and before she knows it she’s at work less because there simply are not enough hours in the day to take care of everything. This reduction of hours is further reflected in her salary, since her male colleagues have had more time to gain promotions and raises.

Can you imagine what this would be like for a woman who decides to breastfeed? The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six MONTHS of a child’s life – that’s more than four months longer than the allotted maternal leave. Considering that only about 30% of infants are still breastfed at 6 months, the effect of this short leave is pretty clear. The lactation rooms I talked about earlier are one of the many solutions to this quandary that many women find themselves in – they won’t have to miss as much work to take care of their child, and they won’t have to miss out on the great opportunity breastfeeding provides. Reducing the time spent out of work isn’t the only necessary solution to a problem that has plagued American women for generations, but it certainly is an important one. Lactation rooms, along with longer paternity leave options, would greatly improve a lot of the conditions surrounding the great income inequality many women face.

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4 thoughts on “Lactation Rooms and Income Inequality

  1. Great article, Kelsey. I always have trouble breaking down the numbers, so I’m glad you were able to find the statistics to back up the obvious (to anyone who knows a wink about raising kids, anyhow) truth that uneven division of childcare/household work results in less work opportunities for women. I’d imagine a lot of women would love to do more hours but just can’t due to their role as caretaker/housekeeper. The lactation rooms do sound like they will help some women get back to work, although I wish they’d also give better paternity leave (almost like society doesn’t value fatherhood :/).

    The two weeks for adopted children is also ridiculous…

    • Oh, of course, I would have talked WAY more about that but this was already a beastly monstrosity. Two weeks for ANY new parent is pretty ridiculous, I think, both for adoption and paternity leave. (Which begs the question, what do male couples do? Through paternity leave or adoption leave, they’d both get two weeks… they’d probably end up taking more unpaid leave, which is hardly fair.) Having a six week minimum leave for all new parents would be a start, I think, though in reality it should be more. Other countries have up to 6 MONTHS of paid leave (for both parents, even!), which is great.

  2. It’s also interesting to look at other developed countries, such as those in Europe:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/maternity-and-paternity-leave-across-the-eu-2112229.html

    I think the major reason why fathers don’t get as much time off as mothers because employers believe they don’t serve as much of a purpose at home than the mothers do. I disagree with this mindset, but only for the caretaker argument. Down to the bare essentials, the mothers are the ones doing the breastfeeding. Yes, they can use pumps so the fathers can use bottles, but that’s probably not the most popular option. However, I still agree with you–men should have equal opportunities of spending time with their newborns and getting accustomed to parenthood with his spouse.

  3. It’s very interesting that gender roles that seemingly favor men actually force them into negative stereotypes.

    I feel like a lot of fathers wish they spent more time with their kids. I know my dad wishes he could have been around more often when I was growing up.

    But then, the question is how come we men don’t do anything to help. I don’t find issue with eliminating the gap. When I have kids, I want to be able to say I’ve been the best father I can be.

    What you all are doing here on this blog is great. I wish I could get more people to read it.

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