IBM breast milk delivery: progress, or forcing working moms to work harder?

IBM will provide a service to allow nursing employees to express ship breast milk home to their babies for free while on business trips. But is it just another way to get women back to work sooner after they become new parents? 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
IBM CEO Virginia Rometty speaks during the US Africa Business Forum in Washington, Aug. 5, 2014. Rometty was the sixth highest paid female CEO in 2014, according to a study carried out by executive compensation data firm Equilar and The Associated Press.

Traveling for work when you have a newborn baby at home can be a nerve-wracking experience for any new parent, but for a breastfeeding mother it can be especially challenging.

Nursing mothers on the road often have to make the difficult decision of whether to toss their milk after pumping or go through the logistical hassle of storing it and shipping it home at just the right temperature. Now, however, the tech giant IBM has pledged to make the experience easier for its employees by launching a new service that will allow nursing mothers to express ship their breast milk home to their babies for free.

The initiative has been touted as a way for the company to retain and support the working mothers on its team. Nevertheless, some skeptical commentators say that, although measures like these are testament to the fact that big companies are starting to recognize the need to attract female talent, they also normalize the fact that working mothers are often expected to give more time to their jobs than to their children.

“In the brave new world we are living, IBM offers breast milk delivery for working mothers. Could it be that another industry giant thinks of offering “child bonding” delivery? Education and child care can hardly be performed from a distance,” wrote Tara Hamilton for the online news site the Monitor Daily.

“Offering retention services wrapped in the package of benefits only keeps people, namely women, spending long hours at the office, while their babies drink milk from cardboard boxes,” she added.

Other companies that have made sweeping efforts to address their employees’ needs to balance work, family, and fertility have come under similar scrutiny.

Last year, both Apple and Facebook announced that they would offer to pay their female employees up to $20,000 to freeze their eggs. While some supporters said the measure would benefit female employees by allowing them to rise up the corporate ladder through focusing on their career instead of kids throughout their 30s, others complained that this “postponing pregnancy approach” to the work-life balance conundrum was problematic.

“It’s clearly a welcome option for some women — and as long as it works, it should remain an option. But it doesn’t solve the problem that a woman may not be able to get time off from work during her peak childbearing years, or that she may stunt her career growth (and thus her ability to provide for future children) if she takes such time,” wrote Anna North for the New York Times.

“And reforms that might actually solve this problem — paid leave, flexible work schedules, anti-discrimination laws, equal pay — seem to get little political traction.”

Instead of offering working mothers-or prospective mothers-the opportunity to work more while building a family on the side, society needs to rethink its relationship with work and the expectations it has of working parents, these critics say.

Still, others see IBM's new measure as a progressive way to support women given the current state of the workplace.

"IBM may have just hit a new policy high when it comes to supporting a least one portion of its female workforce, new mothers," wrote Angela Priestly for the site Women's Agenda

"It's great news for all those mothers who've experienced the "pump and dump" while travelling: that is, pumping out your precious excess milk only to see it tragically poured down the drain."

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies be breastfed exclusively for at least six months after birth, but one third of US mothers surveyed said they only do so for half that amount of time. With maternity leave in the United States averaging around 12 weeks, usually unpaid, it is no wonder that many women relinquish the duty after returning to a busy office environment.

For some women, IBM’s offer could be a useful way to address this issue.

Moreover, although US federal law does currently require that employers provide a private space and a “reasonable amount of time” for mothers to pump their breast milk, there is no explicit requirement that they assist employees who are obligated to travel for work. For many, IBM’s gesture goes above and beyond the necessary measures.  

Officials at IBM have admitted that the initiative is an experiment and that they are unsure how many of their employees will take advantage of this new perk.

“As long as it appeals to a segment of our population and they feel that they can better balance their work and home, we will continue it,” Barbara Brickmeier, vice president of benefits at IBM, told Fortune.

According to IBM, women make up around 29 percent of its workforce and 25 percent of its management worldwide, a reasonably high percentage for an industry famous for its lack of gender diversity. The company’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, is one of only 24 female chief executives of Fortune 500 companies. More exceptional still, the company offers fourteen weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) currently entitles most workers to up to 12 weeks of job-protected medical leave following a birth or adoption. But the law doesn't cover individuals working for smaller companies, and it only guarantees protection for unpaid leaves. Most new parents are forced to use a combination of short-term disability leave, sick leave, vacation, personal days, and unpaid family leave in order to take a few months off to care for a new addition to the family.Very few US workplaces offer paid maternity leave, and six weeks, the period offered by a few notable tech companies, is longer than many new mothers can expect to get. 

Starting in September, nursing IBM employees will be able to download an app that will coordinate the whole breast milk shipping process from start to finish. Special pre-ordered packages will be waiting for the employee at her hotel reception desk, and, once filled, will be picked up and shipped back home on IBM’s dime.

"We do all the work so the mother doesn't have to think about any of the details," Ms. Brickmeier told the Washington Post.

 "… it's not a huge cost in the grand scheme of things," she said. Getting and keeping qualified, talented female employees, however, is.

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