Australian Senator Larissa Waters of the Greens Party breastfeeds her daughter Alia Joy as she speaks in the Australian Senate. Picture: Reuters

Even though we’ve made positive changes for mothers in the workplace, we still have a way to go, writes Marchelle Abrahams.

Bundled closely against her mother’s chest, little Maile Pearl Bowlsbey made Senate history in April this year when Senator Tammy Duckworth arrived at Capital Hill for a closed vote.

In a change to Senate rules, US lawmakers allowed children under the age of one to enter the chamber floor.

During a thought-provoking piece on Duckworth, Washington Post journalist Amy Joyce noted that she may have made the rule change look easy, but one thing was crystal clear: It’s hard to be a working parent in America, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

In the bigger scheme of things, the rule change was a win for mothers across the world, albeit a small one.

It highlights the fact that even though we’ve made positive changes for mothers in the workplace, we still have miles to go.

Case in point: Sheryl Sandberg. The Facebook COO admitted she never realised how hard it is to be a single parent until her husband died.


In a touching Facebook post in 2016, she said the odds were stacked against single moms. “I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home,” she wrote.

In her best-seller book, Lean In: Women Work And The Will To Lead, she describes how Silicon Valley is not the best environment for expecting moms. She says her light-bulb moment came the day she realised, when heavily pregnant, that her previous workplace had no reserved parking bays for pregnant women.

“The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed,” she said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth arrives at the Senate with her new daughter, Maile Pearl. Picture: AP

“Women like Sheryl Sandberg and US Senator Duckworth are casting the spotlight on an issue which should not even be an issue,” reckons success strategist and coach Usha Maharaj CA(SA).

The same applies to breastfeeding in the workplace. In May 2017 while breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby, Larissa Waters motioned to help coal workers.

She was the first federal female politician to breastfeed in the Australian parliament. When pictures of her nursing her daughter went viral, it made international news.

“I think it’s slightly ridiculous that feeding one’s baby is international news. Women have been breastfeeding for as long as time immemorial.

“But in another sense, this is the first time this has happened in our Parliament in 116 years, so it’s definitely world history-making,” Waters told the BBC.

When it comes to best practices, South Africa seems to be heading in the right direction.

The provisions under the Basic Conditions Of Employment Act state that breastfeeding mothers are legally entitled to two 30-minute breaks per day for breastfeeding or expressing milk if their infants are younger than 6 months.

But according to The Conversation, very few organisations have made the effort to support them.

“Society remains averse to mothers breastfeeding their babies in public spaces, even though breast milk is universally recognised as being a lifesaving super food for babies,” noted Chantell Wittten, a registered dietitian and PhD candidate at North-West University. “If breastfeeding is part of our African culture, why are people offended and disturbed when a mother breast-feeds her baby?”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted she never realised how hard it is to be a single parent until her husband died. Picture: AP

It’s for this very reason that employers should be creating spaces that are nurturing for nursing mothers.

Maharaj also makes an interesting point, adding that men should also play their part.

“If men in the workplace could challenge themselves to understand the needs of women, and if both men and women work together to address these needs, it will, without doubt, contribute to enabling a culture of high performance in the workplace.”

And when it comes to finding that elusive sense of balance, she believes that, unfortunately, there are women who “are demonstrating a non-inclusive train of thought”, rather than combining their efforts, promoting each other and standing united to improve the workplace for all.

“That said, however, when men and women alike understand the value that every single employee offers to the organisation and where they work to create an inclusive environment for all, the positive impact will be felt by all,” Maharaj concludes.