URI offers new options for breastfeeding working mothers

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KINGSTON, R.I.—April 30, 2009 –-The University of Rhode Island took another significant step in helping its employees and students balance work and family by offering a model lactation program that could be replicated on other college campuses.

Two “mothers’ room” lactation sites have been opened on the Kingston campus. One of these is outfitted with a hospital-grade breast pump, a sink, refrigerator, rocking chair, and a resource library for new mothers. Locations on the Narragansett Bay and Providence campuses are also opening this spring. Data is being collected from users for future planning.

“The availability of the lactation room in the Carlotti building helped me make the decision to breast feed for a longer time,” says Yan Sun, assistant professor of electrical engineering. “I returned to work when my son was 6 weeks old and I found expressing milk in my office difficult. My students were accustomed to finding me in my office and, even with the door closed, I did not have the privacy that I needed.”

URI has been on the forefront of workplace evolution. For several years, an active Work/Life Committee, a collaboration among the URI President’s Commission on the Status of Women, the URI ADVANCE program (aimed at promoting the careers of women in science and engineering), and Human Resources, has worked to help URI effectively respond to the needs of a diverse workforce and student body.

Approximately one-third of mothers return to work within 3 months of giving birth, and well over half return within one year,” says Barbara Silver who directs the ADVANCE program. “Concurrently, breastfeeding has become preferred as the optimal form of infant nutrition for about three-quarters of new mothers, and over half of mothers of infants over 6 months old. Many organizations, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and numerous others, deem breastfeeding as the physiological norm for both mothers and their infants. The benefits of breastfeeding are multifold, including significant health benefits to both mother and child, as well as larger scale benefits to society and the environment.

“However, a serious disconnect exists between these realities and traditional workplace policies new mothers face when returning to work. This dilemma provides a good example of how contemporary women’s careers can be disadvantaged by traditional work policies and practices. New mothers who need or desire to be back in the workforce experience strong societal encouragement to provide optimal health opportunities to their infants through breastfeeding, and yet are rarely provided a means to accommodate these competing realities,” Silver adds.

Silver and Sociology Professor Helen Mederer, who chairs the URI Work-Life Committee, received an $80,000 grant in the spring of 2008 from the Elsevier Foundation to implement the lactation program at the University. This program includes establishing a University Lactation Policy, which was established this past February.

URI’s policy mirrors Rhode Island legislation passed this month, which requires an employer to make “a reasonable effort to provide a private, secure, and sanitary room or other location in close proximity to the work area, other than a toilet stall, where an employee can express her milk or breastfeed her child” (R.I. Gen. Laws § 23-13.2-1). Of the 41 states and territories enacting some form of legislation relating to breastfeeding, Rhode Island is one of only 22 states that addresses breastfeeding in the workplace.

There is clear evidence that the struggle to balance life and work disadvantages women’s jobs more so than men’s. Indeed, although men in dual earner families have increased their participation in home and family care, research shows that women still shoulder a much greater burden. Inevitable career repercussions occur. Among professionals, women much more frequently forego marriage and family to pursue academic career success than do their male peers. For example, women who have children soon after receiving a doctorate are much less likely to receive tenure than their male counterparts, hitting what is sometimes called a “maternal wall.” This leads to increased attrition rates for women faculty, and if they do stay in academia, they more often opt for lower-paying, non-tenure line appointments and part-time work.

Progress, however, is being made. Employers like URI are beginning to respond to these workforce changes by offering more flexible work accommodations. Research shows that when more supportive work/life policies and practices are available, employees exhibit more positive work outcomes, including job satisfaction, commitment to employer, retention, less interference between job and family life, less negative spillover from job to home, greater life satisfaction, and better mental health. As both recruitment and retention tools, policies and practices that promote work-life balance are becoming bottom-line necessities for universities and other employers across the country.

While the lactation program primarily benefits new mothers, initiatives like this bring URI one-step closer toward being a model flexible workplace for both men and women. For employers, new mothers who return to work by choice or necessity are not only valued employees, they are raising the next generation of Rhode Island workers,” says Mederer. “Thus, this issue has relevance beyond personal choice, and encompasses community, state, and societal interests about building a healthy workforce. Making clear provisions for breastfeeding workers and students legitimizes a practice that has been expected to occur somehow invisibly by women, and normalizes a sensitive topic within the workplace community.”