The female ideal is no longer the doting wife, waiting at home for her husband to return as she cooks, irons, and cleans. It is the ‘girl boss’; she is the working woman who has time for her own activities and achievements, as well as home life. This ideal is becoming increasingly romanticised in the media with family bloggers and celebrities such as Kim Kardashian stating ‘it seems like nobody wants to work these days. You have to surround yourself with people that want to work’.
The Americanised retelling of Molly Mae’s ‘everyone has the same 24 hours in the day’, may on the surface appear empowering, but of course, is easier both said and done when in a position of major privilege. It is unsurprising the achievements figures like the Kardashians have to their names when you consider their access to nannies, personal shoppers, assistants, house keepers, gardeners, etc. Business can become a hobby to some online mums who can support themselves in ways which alleviate some of the many stresses experienced in motherhood. Modern mothers also have a universal standard created by unrealistic social media presences. The accessibility of social media and influencer advertising has heightened the image of the modern mother, with the type of façade only FaceTune and a 10 second clip can create.
Consequently, more and more women are returning to work after maternity leave, showing promising suggestions to the female position in the workplace. However, upon returning to their career, the employee will also bring bodily changes they experienced through their pregnancy and birth - notably, breast feeding. In many cases, women who require breast pumping facilities find themselves swept into small spaces: toilets or even cupboards. In a recent example, teacher and new mother, Tara Mellor, was forced by fellow employees and her bosses to express either in the toilet on her lunch break or in the car park.1 Mellor chose to take action against her employer, due to the infringement over her autonomy. In winning this case of sexual harassment, hopefully a change will follow, shifting how seriously the government and Board of Health take action to support mothers to re-enter the work place.
Though 95% of bosses believe they run an inclusive workplace, only 22% offer a designated area for their employees to breastfeed.2 Section 4 of the Health and Safety Executive guidance3 states there must be a suitable area where mothers can rest, that is hygienic and private. A toilet is expressly stated as not being satisfactory in meeting these requirements. Kate Palmer, Advice and Consultancy Director, stated that ‘toilets, desk spaces or cars are inadequate and inappropriate places to provide’. Instead, Palmer went on to state that employers must meet this requirement ‘as far as possible’.4 Mothers are entitled to somewhere to store their milk and should have somewhere to lie down if necessary.5 Breastfeeding mothers and pregnant workers are also entitled to more frequent rest breaks. However, in explaining how they accommodate the needs of breastfeeding women, respondents recorded answers such as this: ‘We wouldn’t allow women to sit in the office uncovered so why is it ok when there is a baby? Go to the ladies and feed in peace and don’t make the rest of us uncomfortable’. Additionally, 80% of employers in the UK stated they are not looking to introduce or improve measures to support employees who may be breastfeeding.6
This is workplace discrimination that is directly incompatible with the Equality Act 2010. And, although this will offer protection for mothers and pregnant women to take action in civil claims court, it is understandable if many women may decide silence is beneficial. Though it is unlikely bringing a claim would lead to the female employee’s redundancy, understandably, the anxiety of creating an awkward environment could deter those facing this form of discrimination from raising the issue. Yet, with no anticipated action being taken to improve the conditions for pregnant women or new mothers, employers will likely continue to overlook this matter and the needs of women. Consequently, a lack of a suitable environment may lead to women weening their children off of breast milk earlier than foreplanned. The benefits of breast milk are limitless, as it can reduce a baby’s risk of infections, sudden infant death syndrome, cardiovascular disease in adulthood, and many other ailments.7 Breastfeeding is also an effective way of strengthening the immune system of infants as antibodies are passed from mother to child via their milk, a benefit many utilised during the pandemic. Studies showed many women continued to breastfeed their children beyond their originally conceived timeline to protect their child’s immunity.8 Therefore, to deny a breastfeeding woman a private and comfortable place to express is not only a form of serious workplace discrimination, but these actions of an employer will impact the health of children as well.
This issue extends to new mothers who do not need the facilities to express. Mothers are entitled to a year of Maternity leave, however on return, often women are left feeling isolated, incapable or generally out of the loop. In a survey of more than 1,000 women, 37% of women returning to employment felt so unsupported upon their return from maternity leave they considered handing in their notice.9 This creates the challenge of finding an alternative form of income while managing home life, this is also reflected in statistics which have shown that women are more likely to return to lower paid roles following their pregnancy. Mothers who choose to leave their employment are three times more likely to return to a lower-paid or lower-responsibility role than those who did not10. An employer denying a new mother a safe and quiet space to express or failing to offer additional support as a mother re-enters employment has shown to have serious repercussions. This type of discrimination can have a distinct rippling effect on many areas of a new mother’s life from the child’s health, financial burdening, or mental exhaustion, to underline only a few.
Written by Katie Wills