Why Nursing Mothers Are Seen as Less Competent (Pregnant Women, Too!)

breastfeeding Here’s some nauseating news that’s less surprising than it should be: A recent study found that a woman who is breastfeeding may be judged as less competent. But it’s not just breastfeeding that negatively affects people’s perceptions of a woman’s ability. Women were ranked lower in perceived competence when evaluators thought they were pregnant, too.  And a woman doesn’t even have to wait to reproduce to experience this kind of bias. It can happen every month, when she has her period. According to a 2002 study,  “a woman who is (perceived as) menstruating is viewed as less competent and is liked less than a woman who is not thought to be menstruating.”

While pregnancy, motherhood, and even menstruation have been well studied and are known to negatively affect how competent a woman is thought to be, this study is among the first to look at how breastfeeding changes people’s attitudes toward women.  The authors wanted to see whether breastfeeding would create the same kind of bias as other signs of female reproductive function (pregnancy, menstruation). They were also interested in whether this had anything to do with the  breast as a sexual object.

Here’s what they learned, and how they learned it:

The study, “Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed”, was done last year at the University of Montana, and actually involved three separate studies. All involved college students, none of whom had children of their own.

Study 1: Participants were asked to read a resume about Brooke Shields. The resume contained information about her book: ‘Out Came The Sun’ which described her life as a new mom. In one group, the packed said  “she writes about her new role as a mother including her experi- ences with breastfeeding, bathing and overall care of a new- born.” In the other group, the word “breastfeeding” was replaced with “bottle-feeding”. Brooke Shields was then rated on a number of traits relating to competence, intelligence and warmth. The bottle-feeding version of Brooke scored higher in all areas except warmth.

Study 2: Participants were shown an advertisement for a cream. In one group,  the cream was said to be for “nursing mothers to soothe chaffed nipples after nursing,” In the second, for “joggers to soothe chaffed nipples after exercise.”. The third group were told the cream was for “women to refresh nipples before intimacy.” The woman pictured and the ad were otherwise identical. When asked to rate the competence of the woman in the picture, the woman who was using the cream for post-exercise relief was rated highest, while the breastfeeding mother was rated lowest.  The mother who was using the cream for sexual purposes was ranked in the middle.

Study 3: Participants listened to a voicemail message that began with: “Hey! I got your text but I couldn’t make it out. I assume you were saying you wanted to meet up at 7 instead of 6? Is that right?”. The message ended in one of four different ways:

Breastfeeding emphasis: “I figured you would want to go home and breastfeed the baby before we left any- way. If I don’t hear back I will assume that’s the plan.”

Mother only emphasis: “I figured you would want to go home and give the baby a bath before we left anyway. If I don’t hear back I will assume that’s the plan.”

Sexual breast emphasis: “I figured you would want to go home and change into your strapless bra before we left anyway. If I don’t hear back I will assume that’s the plan.”

No emphasis: “I figured you would want to go home before we left anyway. If I don’t hear back I will assume that’s the plan.”

Participants then rated the woman the message described.  The breastfeeding mother ranked lowest on all four criteria: General competence, Workplace capabilities, Math competence, and Likelihood to Hire.

Clearly,  when anything that evokes the reality of a woman’s biology makes her seem less able to excel in other areas, there is a problem.  One of the leading interpretations of this and other similar studies is that women’s reproductive functions force people to see themselves, on a subconscious level,  as animals. This truth is deeply subverted by the culture and may bring up negative feelings, which could then be transferred to the woman who provoked them.

I think the fact that this study involves only young, childless people is significant here. College students have very likely had zero personal exposure to breastfeeding.  The fact that there is little representation of breastfeeding in the media may actually force a more primitive association.  What comes to mind when they think of breastfeeding? Renaissance paintings?  National Geographic? The zoo?

Attitudes like this are why I feel so strongly about breastfeeding in public. Yeah, I hear the arguments: breastfeeding is a biological function and subject to the same expectations for privacy. Breasts are sexual and shouldn’t be seen. But I don’t buy it. And I don’t believe that any woman who wants to feed her baby in public should be branded a “Lactivist”. Women need to be seen breastfeeding for people to understand that breastfeeding is a normal part of cultural life, not just animal life.

This study began with a list of nearly a dozen others that showed the bias against women just for being visibly, functionally female. Or, if you want to take it to another level, for being female without being apparently up for impregnation—a common thread running through all these biological states.  In either case, women are experiencing profound prejudice. The impetus for the judgment may be biological, or cultural, or both. I think women should take this information not as a warning, but as a call to arms.

photo: c r z/flickr

Tagged as: , , , ,

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, profile photo and other personal information you make public on Facebook (e.g., school, work, current city, age) will appear with your comment. Learn More.