If you can’t find a space, sometimes you need to make one instead. In the workplace, this can mean repurposing a supply closet into a meeting room, a call booth, or even… a mother’s room. While certainly not a recommended solution, sometimes organizations find it tough to meet the needs of breastfeeding mothers when they’re dealing with limited amounts of space or the cost of repurposing existing space.
Historically, the public discourse around breastfeeding has been dominated by the “cover versus no cover” debate around nursing moms causing changes in law and culture to better support the needs of breastfeeding and pumping mothers. But lost in the discussion over the if and how of feeding our babies, lies the most pressing question: Where?
For the first time in history, women make up more than half the workforce, which means there’s clear motivation to find an answer to the where question and to find it fast. This movement to create more inclusive workplaces for mothers is especially salient since it benefits both the employee and the company.
One company made it their mission to answer this question. Mamava, whose stand-alone lactation suites have been popping up in public and private spaces since 2013, also champions education and resources that help create private spaces in the workplace for new mothers.
We recently spoke with Mamava’s CEO Sascha Mayer and CRO Nikkie Kent. They shared their insights about the evolution of breastfeeding accommodations in the workplace, the rising call for inclusivity for working moms, and the necessary conversations employers and employees must have to support mothers as they head back to work.
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Inclusive design: The need for lactation spaces
Options for breastfeeding mothers in the office have historically been, shall we say, less than optimal — converted supply closets, shared office spaces (without locking doors), multi-purpose rooms. Or worse, bathrooms and other spaces where pumping is unhygienic.
Yet nearly 70% of moms with children under 18 and 64% of moms with preschool-aged children are in the paid workforce, according to Pew research. But only one in four moms report having a dedicated lactation room in their workplace, according to Mamava’s 2019 Survey.
Only one in four moms report having a dedicated lactation room in their workplace
Mother’s rooms at work: In-the-box thinking
These conflicting realities led Mamava’s Co-founders Mayer and Christine Dodson to design their first lactation pod. As CRO Kent says “[The founders] knew they could use good design to solve cultural issues and challenges and help push the culture forward.”
Their commitment to empathetic design—paired with a powerful, brand-first mission to raise the profile of breastfeeding in the workplace and beyond—would fuel the company’s early success in reaching decision-makers and leading the larger conversation around the needs of working moms. With the advent of ACA and FLSA mandates that required workplaces to provide break time and private spaces for breastfeeding employees, the founders had a clear opening within an underserved space.
Those early conversations revealed an interesting detail; Mamava found itself serving both the moms that use the suites and the facilities managers (often men) who purchase and maintain the units. They navigated this through careful messaging for these very different personas, Mayer said, “seeing a need and empathizing with it. Looking at it from the perspective of the mom, but also making it easy for the facility.”
Where the pods themselves serve as an icebreaker— a pop of color and a symbol for breastfeeding moms in the workforce — the educational aspects of the business get facilities thinking about the larger implications of their corporate policies and amenities.
The rise of inclusivity for working mothers
Conversations about lactation policy can be complex, given the social barriers to talking openly about personal medical matters in the workplace. While Mayer and Kent say that in the majority of stories, there’s “a link back to a mom” who became a “lactivist” for her office, they also see progressive corporations seeking to create inclusive workplaces proactively.
In these cases, “space is the first component being checked off because of the necessity of compliance.”
However, Kent explains, “A lot of these partners we have… they’re saying it’s not just enough to have a space. I have to help my moms find the space, let them know how to access it, let them know they have space before they go on leave so they know they’re supported. I need to have a dedicated lactation policy.” These companies are turning to Mamava for support in building out lactation suites and the policies around them.
One of the biggest areas of concern for lactating mothers, they say, is privacy. “Feeling secure in a place where you’re actually disrobing is really important.” Though lactating moms aren’t as often relegated to a broom closet today, their designated spot could be somewhere that doesn’t afford sufficient privacy to pump— for instance, a shared office, a space with no lock, or a generic “wellness room,” that leaves a mom to advocate for their space at the moment they need it most.
Much of the education Mamava provides in this area is helping facilities understand fully what is needed. “We do a lot of educating because this is something culture hasn’t fully wrapped its arms around yet,” says Mayer. The results have been gratifying, with more organizations bringing their amenities to the forefront rather than hiding them away in an office design. “Keeping these spaces hidden perpetuates the problem.”
This progress has also created avenues for businesses interested in honest, open conversations with employees, helping them to shape a more open dialogue about return-to-work issues.
Why designing with mothers in mind affects the bottom line
Millennial moms intent on staying in the workforce after giving birth are coming to expect more of their employers, and those employers are beginning to understand the value of ensuring their return. Where 43% of women don’t return to their jobs post-baby, those remaining are standing up for more support.
“It’s becoming an expectation of this next generation of millennial moms. [They say] ‘If I’m going to go to work for an employer, I will know what their policy is out of the gate for parental leave. I will know if there’s a return program. I will know what my options are.’” In the absence of those amenities? “It’s not as enticing as a place to work.”
Organizations are beginning to see lactation rooms and policies as more than a compliance requirement, but a chance to communicate clearly that “this is a family-friendly, supportive employer, and you’re not going to have it harder because of the family decision you made to have a child.”
Workplaces see the value in reducing the off-ramp effect and preserving the valuable knowledge and training that may walk out the door if the organization doesn’t support mothers of newborns. Mayer says that the “dollars and cents” use case for supporting moms becomes more clear in this context.
One benefit offered by progressive employers allows moms to stagger their return to work in such a way that allows a gradual return to work, allowing a new mother to successfully shift from her responsibilities at home in such a way that benefits both employer and employee.
Having insight into the benefits of other progressive organizations, Mamava has adopted a “best of the best” approach to their own policies. They are proud to “walk the talk” about supporting working families, and their own corporate policies definitely reflect that pride and commitment to a family-first ethos. They even adopted a “returnity leave policy” for their own office after their Director of Sales raised the question of a staggered return to work.
For Mayer and her team, “It always comes back to the human connection.”
Building a better office for moms
For Mamava and other organizations, increasing inclusivity for working moms brings about the best of what can be accomplished—for both the employees and the brands they support.
For the employee: More choice and better self-advocacy, and job satisfaction comes from knowing you’re supported within your role regardless of your personal life and choices.
For the manager: More stability and planning for short and long-term objectives, and the benefit of low turnover where institutional knowledge stays within the team or department.
For the organization: Increased brand awareness from evangelist employees, better access to top talent, and reduced retention and training costs. In short, a better financial bottom line, just for doing the right thing.
Interested in learning more about creating inclusive workplaces for every employee? Read more about accommodating different types of employees in the workplace.