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Breastfeeding Women Perceived As Less Competent

Breastfeeding Women Perceived As Less Competent

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.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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88 comments

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9:00PM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Thank you, Jenni E! And I agree with you...Paul Block was right on target...and I adore his sarcastic whit! A modern man in all the RIGHT ways!

1:06PM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Well said Erica Bastow and Paul Block !!!!

10:50AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

I was able to breast feed all 4 of my children. I did so until they each turned one year of age. I was very discreet, and never had a problem finding a quiet place to go, or being able to feed in public basically unnoticed. I have seen women breatfeeding, and most...if you didn't know yourself the telltale blanket draping and little feet sticking out...you'd never know. We seem to be the only country with some kind of issue against breats feeding. My children are very healthy...almost NEVER sick, I attirbut ethat to a healthy start of breast milk. If you see a woman discreetly feeding in a public place...leave her alone and give her the proper respect....it is the best way to feed your baby..and saving it to a bottle isn't always convenient....

8:53AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

I breastfed my daughter wherever I was at and plan to do the same with the baby I will deliver this summer. Formula is a horrible alternative to breastmilk. All women should stop being embarrassed about breastfeeding their babies in public. After all, many women feel no shame about wearing low cut tops and short skirts. One is nourishment and love and the other is all about sex.

6:09AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Pretty bizarre attitudes revealed here. Breasts came into existence to provide the ideal nourishment for the infant long before white American males sexualised them and then became embarrassed by the whole subject. I wonder if men who are so scandalised by the sight of a mother feeding her child are troubled by the very public nature of the act. After all, breasts (being sexual accessories, and created by god exclusively for the satisfaction of males) should be exposed only in the privacy of the marital bedroom or, failing that, in the context of pornography. Clearly, I must add, the pole-dancing club is a valid exeption to that rule but, in that all-male environment, the performers are not mothers or potential mothers and the tits are there to be gawped at. So, it is men's loss of control over the appearance of the breast that they find uncomfortable and the implication that women can make their own decisions.
In India, the Nestle company came in for some thoroughly deserved flak for its campaign some years back to encourage women to free themselves from the shackles of tradition and, like those sophisticated western ladies they should all emulate, enter the modern world and eschew the breast in favour of formula milk. Nestle made a fortune in overturning the acquired knowledge of generations of women and many babies died because the powder was mixed with unclean water. Is it possible that the grasping hand of corporate interests is somehow, subtly, nursing this debate?

2:17PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

IT'S DIFFICULT TO AN EUROPEAN TO UNDERSTAND THIS "SHAME" ABOUT BREASTFEEDING THAT IT SEEMS MANY PEOPLE FELT IN USA.
HERE WHAT HAPPENS IS THE OPPOSITE. ALL THE FAMILIES AND DOCTORS AGREE THAT'S THE BEST THING FOR THE BABY, A WOMEN BREASTFEEDING IS THE MOST NATURAL THING IN THE WORLD AND A WOMEN WHO REFUSES DOING SO ( I DON'T KNOW ABOUT NO WOMAN WHO CAN AND REFUSES) WOULD BE CONSIDER AN IGNORANT! MORE: FATHERS AND THE REST OF THE FAMILY FELT PROUD ABOUT IT! GENERALLY WHEN A WOMAN BREASTFEED IN PUBLIC SHE JUST PUT A COTTON DIPPER OVER THE BREST!
BREASTFEEDING IS CONSIDER A VERY BEAUTIFUL THING....

12:16PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

This shouldn't be so.

10:00AM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

@Elgrit B
"Breastfeeding is normal and natural but it should be done in total privacy, never in public..... Women, respect yourself and breastfeed in private. Don't embarrass those of who who feel it is a public spectacle which, we both know, it will become to the men around us."

Out in the world "total privacy" usually means a bathroom stall. Substitute a toddler or yourself in there. Eating is natural for a toddler, but boy that CAN be a "public spectacle" and messy, too! Should that toddler go in a public restroom to eat? I am grossed out by people eating meat. I think YOU should take your burger, go privately lock yourself in a public restroom stall and eat it in there, so I am not scandalized by it. After all, have some respect for yourself and eat dead things in "total privacy."

For the record, I am pretty modest and shy myself, but I do not in any way feel offended if I see a breast-feeding mom and I think it is great to have moms out there doing so in public. As manager of a coffee shop, I NEVER asked moms to move, and made sure they knew they did not need to. They have a legal right to be there, AND feed their baby there.

From attitudes like yours and others who agree with you, we need a few more "lactivists" out there. Moms! Don't hide! Be where we can see you and become educated about this!

9:01AM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

My parents-in-law were uncomfortable and embarrased when my sister-in-law breastfed her son beyond the first weeks of his life. My father-in-law commented that he thought his daughter had more sense. The husband of a friend of mine harrassed her about breastfeeding their daughter until she stopped and began using bottle-feeding and formula. He had been fine with her breastfeeding their first child, a boy. His discomfort with the second child began after one of his male friends make several "jokes" about the mother-daughter breastfeeding being a "lesbian relationship". The husband said he was "afraid" his daughter would become a lesbian because of being breastfed. The nonsensical attitudes and reactions just keep coming, and one can only hope more and more women will make the VERY SENSIBLE choice to breastfed their daughters and sons.

7:31AM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

I am 52 yrs old. I breast fed all 5 of my kids. Until they were weaned. When ever I went out at night men thought it was sexy that I breast fed.They would try to pick me up, I'd say I am married and nursing a baby. If I went out and my baby needed to be fed, I'd whip the old puppy out and nurse the baby. I am NOT ashamed of WHO I am and I am comfortable in my skin. And I am NOT ashamed of what I am doing, because I am doing nothing wrong. If someone had a problem with me nursing my baby, then they can leave. But fortunately I never encounter ignorant people. Maybe it was my confidence, and happy spirit that but people at ease.I would let people know what I was gonna do, and put alittle humor into it. I am a extemely people person, and have ability to control the situation with a smile.

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