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

 
 

This week's innovators to know include Steve Jennis of Founder's Compass, Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, and Chris DuPont of Galen Data. Courtesy photos

Houston's innovation ecosystem continues to grow. Last week, a group of startup mentors formed a new program that's a masterclass for aspiring entrepreneurs. Plus, a Houston innovator is writing the book on inclusion while another has a new partnership with a medical device company.

Steve Jennis, co-founder of Founder's Compass

Steve Jennis, along with three other Houston entrepreneurs, have teamed up to create a program based on each of their expertise that provides a launch pad for aspiring startup founders. Photo courtesy of Steve Jennis

Steve Jennis, a founder and mentor within the Houston innovation ecosystem, was thinking about opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. While there are several accelerators within the ecosystem, they tend to be months-long programs that might require equity.

"A few months ago it struck me that maybe there was a gap in the market between the aspiring entrepreneur," says Jennis, "and the accelerator or incubator program."

Jennis tapped a few of his fellow founder-mentors to create Founder's Compass, an online masterclass for people who have a business idea but don't know what to do next. Read more about the new program.

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork

Denise Hamilton is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

After developing a long career as a corporate executive, Denise Hamilton was fielding tons of requests to lunch or coffee to "pick her brain." While she loved helping to mentor young businesswomen, it was starting to become exhausting. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

So, five years ago, she turned the cameras on and started a library of advice from female executives like herself and created WatchHerWork. The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership — and, amid COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, she's particularly busy now. Stream the episode and read more.

Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data

Houston-based Galen Data, led by Chris Dupont, is collaborating with an Austin health device company on a cloud-based platform that monitors vital signs. Photo via galendata.com

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process." Read more about the innovative Texas partnership.

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