Guest column

Houston founder: COVID-19 return-to-work plans failing to consider breastfeeding moms

Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, shares how the pandemic's return-to-work policies are affecting new moms. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Consensus seems to indicate that working from home has proven more effective than previously believed, though most would also agree that there is still a need for an office outside the home.

By now, I've received about a million different emails with guides on how to reopen businesses safely amidst COVID-19: how to protect employees, social distancing in the workplace, the future of office space and the effects on commercial real estate…the list goes on and on.

The majority of these guidelines include some version of:

Employers should discontinue use of common spaces such as lunchrooms, breakrooms, meeting rooms and other gathering spaces to avoid unnecessary person-to-person exposure.

This is surely wise. After all, the place with the most germs in the office is usually the faucet of the break room sink.

However, what these recommendations have all failed to consider, what not a single one has even mentioned, is the mother's room.

The majority of mother's rooms, unfortunately, double as some sort of communal wellness or other multi-purpose room. This should not be the case even during non-pandemic times, for a variety of reasons, which you can read about here. But now with COVID-19, for obvious reasons they should not be one and the same. There is a real issue at hand — one with long lasting repercussions for not only working mothers, but their employers too.

The majority of in-office mother's rooms do not have a sink. Therefore, women are forced to carry their used pump parts to the break room or bathroom sink, exposing themselves not only to scrutiny and often even harassment, but also to germs. So, what happens if this common area break room, this already subpar solution, is closed? What do mothers do then?

What about the cleaning and sanitizing of the room? What about room usagee schedules to ensure proper distancing and cleaning between each use? What about including not only hand sanitizer and surface disinfectant wipes, but also the proper pump part cleaning and sanitizing supplies?

What if the mother's room itself is closed, as that too is considered a "communal space?" (Though let us not forget that there are federal and state requirements for the majority of employers to provide a mother's room.)

Fortunately, many offices are implementing more flexible work policies, allowing many to work from home. But, I worry that this "option" will end up becoming a forced "solution" for working mothers. Oh, you're pumping? Just stay home.

On the one hand, great! If you're lucky enough to have in-home childcare, you will actually be able to take breaks and breastfeed your baby. Win! Even if your little one is in daycare, you can at least pump in the privacy of your own home. Win!

However, here's the problem: This approach may actually hurt women's careers and exacerbate the already brutal motherhood penalty. When an employee works completely remotely, particularly if their job isn't intended to be fully remote, or the rest of their team isn't remote, there are serious side effects:

Passed up for promotions and projects
Sometimes this occurs intentionally: "Oh, she shouldn't work on this because it requires in-office time so we'll assign it to someone else." Sometimes it's unintional — simply, out of sight out of mind. If some members of the team are in the office and others aren't, those who are not there often miss casual conversations or spur of the moment brainstorming sessions that leave them behind and in the dark.

Cessation of learning
When cut off from the rest of the team, it's hard to be exposed to learning opportunities. As soon as the learning and growing stops, the dissatisfaction, restlessness, and turnover begins.

Loss of fidelity
Without contact with the rest of the team or organization, we often lose the connection to our cause. We could be working for anyone. Loyalty suffers when there isn't a meaningful connection.

Loss of leadership
Most experts agree that 70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. Leadership and culture is often most effectively conveyed via modeling behavior. How do you grow your next generation of leaders if they can't see leadership behavior for themselves?

The turnover rate for new mothers is already high — 43 percent — despite the fact that over 75 percent of women want to remain in the workforce to remain in the workforce after becoming mothers, according to an April 2013 article in The Atlantic. This should signal to all employers that they are failing at providing the proper facilities and support for new mothers returning to work. So, what happens when we close the already lacking mother's resources?

This isn't just a women's issue. It's a business issue. Replacing an experienced employee who leaves after childbirth can cost anywhere from 20 to 213 percent of the employee's annual salary. Companies with at least 30 percent management positions held by women tend to be 15 percent more profitable than those without.

Companies such as Goldman Sachs have taken note. They now require at least one woman on the boards of their companies before they can go public. Therefore, employers need to ensure that they can keep top female talent beyond childbearing years. It's worth nothing that according to the CDC, birthrates in the US are declining for all age brackets with the exception of slight gains for women in their 30s and 40s. Meaning, women are waiting longer, until they're more established in their careers, to begin having children. Translation to employers: a more valuable employee you're at risk to lose.

Now, let me be clear about something: I am NOT advocating for a full return to the office for strict, structured working hours. Nor am I saying that women need to run right back to the office right after delivery. Quite the contrary. In fact, I am a firm believer in better parental leave policies and general workplace flexibility with the option of working remotely.

I believe flexibility is actually the very key to leveling the playing field for working mothers. However, to assume that the mother's room is no longer necessary because moms can just stay home, is discrimination, plain and simple. It's the same assumption that's been setting women back for years. "Oh, she probably wants to have kids soon, so she won't want this promotion that will require travel." Or, "oh she's probably just going to get pregnant and quit so I'm not going to hire her."

If a mom chooses to work from home but needs to come in for a meeting, for example, there still needs to be a safe, appropriate facility for her. At a minimum, organizations must create a protocol for this. It is not the mother's job to advocate for this. It is the employer's responsibility to proactively provide for it. This should be an active conversation with landlords.

If mother's needs are not part of this vital return to work safety conversation, women may be left behind. So let's start the conversation.

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Abbey Donnell is a lactation counselor and the founder and CEO of Work & Mother.

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Building Houston

 
 

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of March. Photo via Getty Images

March marks a full year of attending online events — from Zoom panels to virtual conferences. But, the shows must go on with another month full of online innovation and startup events that Houston innovators need to know about.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — from workshops and webinars to summits and pitch parties. Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

March 1-5 — CERAWeek by IHSMarkit

In lieu of the week-long, in-person mega-conference that is the annual CERAWeek by IHSMarkit, the 2021 iteration will be completely virtual. Need some ideas of what panels and talks not to miss? Click here for five recommendations of what to attend.

The conference takes place Monday, March 1, to Friday, March 5. Click here to register.

March 2 — Houston Innovates: Digital transformation and Innovation in Oil & Gas

Digital forces are changing the skills an executive needs to manage organizations. In a world that's become increasingly digital, energy companies can sometimes find it hard to adapt. Join General Assembly Houston for a panel discussion with:

  • Sameer Khan, digital leader (MarTech and Transformation) at ExxonMobil
  • Sarah Vega, vice president of IT & Change at SmartestEnergy
  • Ricky Burns, business transformation team lead at BP
  • Jose Beceiro, senior director of Global Energy 2.0 at the Greater Houston Partnership

The event is on Tuesday, March 2, at 9:30 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 2 — Ladies Who LaUNCH #13: The Female Superpower

In 2020, 40 percent of US businesses were owned by women and generated $1.8 trillion. With these numbers in mind, it comes as no surprise that the presence of women in entrepreneurship and investing is growing.

Why do women-led companies financially outperform their male counterparts? And what are the "female superpowers" behind our ability to excel in these fields? Join featured speaker, Megan Bent, as she explores the research, data, and her own experience in the importance of female leadership in entrepreneurship and investing, and how to leverage your differences to your advantage.

The event is on Tuesday, March 2, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 3 — What's Next in Crypto?

Baker Botts and TeamBlockchain are hosting a webinar discussing trends in cryptocurrency. Key speakers from the sector include:

  • Ali Dhanani, partner at Baker Botts
  • Sarah Beaumont, associate at Baker Botts
  • Jonny Fry, co-founder & CEO at TeamBlockchain Ltd
  • Spencer Randall, principal & co-founder at CryptoEQ
  • Ankush Jain, chief investment officer at Aaro Capital

The event is on Wednesday, March 3, at 11 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 9 — Investing in Medical Devices

Join the Texas HALO Fund for a conversation with three of the fund's portfolio companies: Adient Medical, Allotrope Medical, and PathEx.

The event is on Tuesday, March 9, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 10 — Open Project Night: Achieving Gender Equality in Houston and Beyond

Impact Hub Houston is bringing you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, March 10, at 5 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 10 — Conversations with Latinx Entrepreneurs in Houston

Latinx entrepreneurs are starting small businesses faster than the rest of the startup population and becoming a bigger part of the total U.S. market every day. Join General Assembly for a panel of Houston Latinx leaders as they share stories about their heritage, failures and success.

The event is on Wednesday, March 10, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 11 — How to Sell Without Being "Salesy"

In celebration of Women's History Month, Catherine Brown and Leela Madan, both serial entrepreneurs and founders of Houston-based Founder's Compass offer their advice on selling your business.

The event is on Thursday, March 11, at 10 am. It's $30 and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 11 — Inspire Seminar with Leslie Wise

Join Enventure for a talk and Q&A with the president and principal consultant of Evidence Matters, Leslie Wise. Inspire is one part of Lilie's three-program career exploration series. The goal of Inspire is to share an individual's career journey so that trainees can see one of the many paths that can be taken, learn about the reality of working in these fields, and gain valuable advice from key leaders to better prepare themselves for their own career journey.

The event is on Thursday, March 11, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 16-20 — SXSW

Another conference is pivoting to virtual attendance this year. SXSW has flipped the switch to being online only for 2021. SXSW's seven conference themes are A New Urgency; Challenging Tech's Path Forward; Cultural Resilience in the Arts; The Rebirth of Business; Transforming the Entertainment Landscape; Connection in Disconnection; and An Uncharted Future. Stay tuned to InnovationMap for a Houston innovator's guide to the conference.

The conference takes place Tuesday, March 16, to Saturday, March 20. Click here to register.

March 17 — Top Legal Considerations for Startups

Join Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a session with corporate and securities lawyer Aaron Barker, who specializes in advising companies from formation to exit, will give you the inside knowledge to help you launch your venture, and possibly save you from making a rookie mistake.

The event is on Wednesday, March 17, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

March 24 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a flagship event from The Ion, formerly known as Demo Day. This event will allow for developing companies to receive feedback from subject matter experts and showcase their successes thus far. The event is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions, and results in a final winner to close the series in November. Companies are encouraged to apply online to pitch.

The event is on Wednesday, March 24, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

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