There was a “lactation/quiet room” sign on the door and the room had been reserved for that purpose on the company calendar. So Hannah was surprised when she walked in to discover a male co-worker using the lactation room for a phone call.
“I had to stand there with my sore, full boobs and explain to this dude who was mad at me for interrupting him that I needed the room to express milk to feed my kid later,” said Hannah, who works at a public health policy not-for-profit and asked only to be identified by her first name.
Her story is far from unusual. Travis Kalanick, the embattled CEO of Uber, it was revealed this week, uses his company’s lactation room to meditate.
“Literally, it was an amazing moment last week when we were in the office and he said, ‘I really need to go meditate in order to be in a place to make good decisions right now,’” Arianna Huffington, an Uber board member, told a CNBC conference. “And literally [he] went into a lactation room that happened to be open because they don’t have meditation rooms yet. This is part of the change coming.”
Huffington’s anecdote appeared designed to promote her two current hobbyhorses: corporate wellness initiatives and her belief that Kalanick, who has been widely criticized over his management of the company, is actually a suitable CEO. But if Huffington thought the story would boost the reputation of the male executive of a company that on Monday fired 20 people amid an investigation into allegations of widespread gender discrimination and sexual harassment, well, she was wrong.
Lactation rooms, for the uninitiated, are private rooms where nursing mothers can pump breast milk, preferably with comfortable seating, a refrigerator, a lock on the door and electrical outlets. While at one time new mothers were forced to huddle in a bathroom stall, the Affordable Care Act requires most employers to provide a designated, non-bathroom space.
But not all co-workers see it that way. “I have walked in on an exec having sex with an intern in the lactation room,” said one women working in tech.
Another woman, who also works in the tech industry, said that at her former company she was asked to pump in the server room. It was only after a male co-worker walked in on her (“Thankfully, I was facing the wall,” she said) that the company made arrangements for her to pump in a real room with a lock on the door.
A third woman, who worked for what she described as a well-funded food startup with a social justice mission, said that her CEO regularly used the lactation room to make phone calls or take naps.
“I had to wake him numerous times, which was humiliating,” she said. “Once he told me: ‘I need another 15 minutes.’”
While the CEO would laugh about his behavior, approaching her later to say “Don’t hate me!” or “I owe you one!”, the woman said that his actions had a serious impact on her ability to continue breastfeeding her second child.
“I didn’t pump very long after I went back [to work]. I actually just couldn’t produce enough for my baby, and I know it was because of the stress because I never had that issue with my first,” she said. “I am sad I won’t ever get that back.”
For companies hoping to attract and retrain female workers, a well-kitted out lactation room can be a selling point. When Elle canvassed major US employers in 2016, companies including Google, Facebook and IBM shared photos and details of their accommodations, which ranged from the utilitarian to the luxurious.
Google and Facebook require women to book the spaces in advance, then use their badges to enter, according to Elle. But at many companies, it seems the era of open office plans has turned the rooms into a coveted sanctuary, leaving the women who need them in an awkward situation.
A facilities manager for an advertising company changed the signage on the lactation room from “privacy room” to “mothering room” because, he said: “A guy wouldn’t stop using it to place long angry phone calls hammering out his ugly divorce/custody battle.”
Frustratingly to the manager, the company actually had designated rooms for placing phone calls. “The lactation room was just closer to his desk,” he said.
It is not only men who abuse the lactation room. Writer and editor Jessica Wakeman once worked with a female editor who had “at least two incidents with the company lactation room”.
“She was found by another nursing mom sitting down, her makeup bag and a mirror spread out all over the desk, putting on makeup in the middle of the workday,” Wakeman said.
“I absolutely abuse the lactation room,” confesses another woman. “I abused the lactation room so much they renamed it ‘the quiet room.’”
Heather Kelly, a tech reporter for CNN, proposed one solution for taking back the lactation room.
“If I ever found some dude meditating in the mother’s room,” she tweeted in response to the Kalanick story, “I would blind him with my milk.”
After all, Chris Rock taught us: “No matter what a stripper tells you, there’s no sex in the champagne room.” And no matter what Arianna Huffington says, there should be no meditation in the lactation room.