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Breastfeeding Women Viewed as Less Competent

New research finds both men and women tend to harshly evaluate breastfeeding mothers.
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A study emerged out of Oxford University last week suggesting babies who are breastfed end up doing better in school. Yet despite such well-documented benefits for both mother and child, the percentage of American breastfeeding women remains "stagnant and low," according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why are only one-third of American mothers exclusively breastfeeding at three months, and only 43 percent breastfeeding at all at six months? Perhaps because they’ve gotten a sense of how harshly they are being judged.

Research just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin ("Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed") reports mothers who breastfeed are widely viewed as less competent than otherwise identical females. This disturbing finding was obtained in three separate studies, one of which also found breastfeeding is a handicap for women hoping to be hired for a job.

“Importantly, we did not find evidence that gender of the participant influenced perceptions of the breastfeeding mother,” notes the research team led by Montana State University psychologist Jessi L. Smith. Women, it seems, are just as likely as men to hold this bias.

In one experiment, 30 students told they were engaging in an "impression formation study" were given biographical information on actress Brooke Shields, including the fact she had just written a book about motherhood. Half were told the volume included information on her "experiences with breastfeeding, bathing and overall care of a newborn;" for the other half, the word "bottle-feeding" was exchanged for "breastfeeding."

Afterward, the participants answered a series of questions gauging their overall assessment of the actress. Those who read she was breastfeeding her baby viewed her as "significantly more warm and friendly compared to the bottle-feeding mother, but significantly less competent in general, and less competent in math specifically," the researchers report.

In another experiment, 55 students were told they were participating in a study of how people form impressions of others in the face of limited information. They were asked to judge a woman they got to know by listening to her telephone answering machine.

Specifically, they heard a message in which a man talks about changing the time of their dinner date. The rest of the message varied: Some participants 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 woman "was viewed significantly more negatively compared to the neutral voicemail on all measures of competence," Smith and her colleagues found. The woman in the strapless bra was also labeled as less competent, suggesting that the bias faced by breastfeeding woman "is similar to the once experienced by a woman for whom the breast is sexually objectified," the researchers add.

Asked if they would hire this woman for a job, the participants gave the lowest ratings to the breastfeeding woman — even below that of the woman with sexualized breasts. Interestingly, the woman giving her baby a bath was not penalized in this respect, suggesting it isn’t parenthood per se that makes her less desirable as an employee.

Rather, the culprit seems to be the mental image of her breasts, whether they’re being used as instruments of sexual allure or infant nutrition.

"A woman may not breastfeed because of worry over how she will be evaluated by other people," the researchers conclude. "Data from the current project suggest this worry may be warranted, to the extent that breastfeeding is a devalued social category."

Smith and her colleagues suggest that health professionals should "teach pregnant women about the sexism they might encounter” when they choose to breastfeed. In terms of society as a whole, they argue the only way this bias will diminish is for more women to breastfeed openly.

"More visible breastfeeding mothers should prompt people to wrestle with and debate the issues," they write. "With time, greater numbers of women who breastfeed translates to less prejudice."

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