A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reveals that perhaps the reason that surprisingly low numbers of women breastfeed is that breastfeeding women are widely perceived as being less competent. The three separate studies revealed that breastfeeding may also be a handicap for women in their job searches. And women, it seems, are just as likely to hold these biases as men. This is despite the fact that there are clear positive benefits for both mother and child.
In one particularly interesting experiment, participants were asked to judge a woman by listening to a message left on her voicemail. The beginning of the message was a man’s voice talking about changing the time of their dinner date, but the rest of the message varied. According to Tom Jacobs of Miller-McCune:
“Some heard a neutral conclusion, while others heard a reference to breastfeeding (‘I figured you would want to go home and breastfeed the baby’), motherhood (‘I figured you would want to go home and give the baby a bath’), or sexuality (‘I figured you would want to go home and change into your strapless bra’).”
The breastfeeding women and the woman with the strapless bra were both “viewed significantly more negatively compared to the neutral voicemail on all measures of competence.” And asked whether they would hire this woman for a job, the participants gave the breastfeeding woman the lowest ratings. Interestingly, the woman who was going home to bathe her baby was not viewed negatively, suggesting that it is not motherhood in general that is the issue, but breastfeeding in particular.
“A woman may not breastfeed because of worry over how she will be evaluated by other people,” the researchers concluded. “Data from the current project suggest this worry may be warranted, to the extent that breastfeeding is a devalued social category.”
According to the researchers, the only way to fight against this obvious prejudice is for more women to breastfeed openly. But this is difficult to do, when there are clear barriers for the first waves of women who do so. Teaching pregnant women about the challenges they might encounter is only one part of the solution – we also need to work to combat assumptions about breastfeeding women that are keeping them from being taken seriously in the workplace. And the brunt of transforming our perspectives about breastfeeding should not be placed solely on women.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.