In January, House of Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle finally overturned a 20-year-old ban on breastfeeding in the chamber, saying: “If it happens, it happens. I won’t be upset by it.”
It’s about time. I have just returned to work after having my second child, who I am still breastfeeding. As an employer myself, I find it staggering that, in 2020, breastfeeding at work is still an issue anywhere.
But if it’s still controversial in the centre of government, how can we hope for it to be normalised in workplaces across the country?
It is well-documented that breastfeeding-positive workplace policies reduce staff turnover, meaning less money spent hiring and training new employees, and boost job satisfaction and employee morale in general.
It’s good for new mothers, for businesses, and for the economy. According to the World Health Organisation, even a moderate increase in breastfeeding across the UK (where breastfeeding rates are among the world’s lowest) could save the NHS £50m each year, as it would cut the incidence of common childhood illnesses such as ear, chest and gut infections.
So why are so many employers dragging their heels? Why do new mothers still face major hurdles at work, with no provision of private rooms for expressing milk or fridges to safely store breastmilk in? Why is there still a lack of support from bosses and colleagues?
The answer, sadly, is the lack of support for women at work, full stop — whether they’re new mums, or women over 50.
In fact, the menopause is as much a taboo topic in the workplace as breastfeeding. There are no laws to support menopausal women in UK workplaces — and no policies covering House of Commons staff.
There are currently 4.9m women over 50 in work — the fastest growing sector of the British workforce. But according to research released last year, they’re not comfortable disclosing menopause difficulties to their managers, particularly if those managers are younger than them or are male. Over half had not disclosed their symptoms to their manager, and 59 per cent said their work was being negatively impacted as a result.
This kind of silence is so often the case when it comes to what are still dismissed as “women’s issues” — and it needs to end.
Will this do?
I know first-hand the difference that well-considered female-centric policies can make. Where I work now, I express milk in a WeWork-style booth usually used for hangouts, which is booked for me to use twice a day. My company has always had a supportive culture for women, offering flexible working, return-to-work coaches, and free sanitary products in the loos.
But in my old job, after I’d first given birth, if I needed to express, I had to hide in a corner next to the stationery cupboard because the only other option was the unisex loo.
This kind of “will this do?” attitude is still far too prevalent.
In the UK, 57 per cent of mums say that they would be happy to breastfeed at work, but just three per cent said they were provided with the resources they needed. Similarly, most menopausal women don’t feel supported in the workplace, and many consider leaving their jobs as a result.
The question we all need to be asking ourselves is this: how much great female talent is being lost because of out-of-date office policies?
Embracing breastfeeding at work is a no-brainer — as is implementing other female-friendly strategies such as a menopause policy or flexible working. It won’t just boost women, it will boost your business too — whether that business is running the country or not.