Leadership and Lactation – in the Wake of the Pandemic

I have written frequently and extensively on leadership and lactation. On the impact on women and leadership first of being pregnant, and then of breast feeding. I have argued that this impact is on the one hand considerable and, on the other hand, virtually entirely ignored by both the leadership literature and the leadership industry.

What is ignored in the endless conversations about why so few women are in positions of leadership, especially leadership at the top, is not the issue of childcare. In fact, the topic of work/life balance for women especially has been addressed ad nauseum. Rather what has been relegated is the physiological, psychological, and sociobiological impact on women who are pregnant and who subsequently, immediately after delivery, proceed to breast feed.

Again, women are primates. Further, primates who are pregnant are affected by being pregnant, and primates who are mothers take their mothering seriously. In fact, primates who are mothers take their mothering far more seriously than primates who are fathers take their fathering. Given this – given this radical, natural difference between women and men, specifically between mothers and fathers – what is to be done so far as leadership is concerned? The question is not unimportant. After all, 86% of American women in their early forties are mothers. And, after all, less than 7% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.  

Up to now, staying home more, rather than going to work and remaining at work, all day long, five days a week, has not been much of an option. Though in the last quarter century companies have made major strides in providing alternatives to full time work, including part-time and flex-time, women and, not incidentally, men as well, have been reluctant to work from home for fear of being branded. Being branded if not as a slacker then as less than totally dedicated, less than tirelessly driven. In other words, virtually from the moment of conception all the way through to at least early childhood, women who have been ambitious to lead have found it difficult to reconcile the level of their ambition with the changes in their bodies and psyches, and with their need, their want, after a baby is born to nurse and to nurture.

And now there is this – a pandemic. The coronavirus crisis which has every expert in every field predicting where we will be one year, two years, and five years from now. These predictions are all over the place – with a single exception. With notable regularity we are being told that the nature of work will change – permanently. More specifically, that in the future working from home will be far more prevalent, far more acceptable, and even desirable than it was in the past. In the Financial Times Simon Kuper speculates, “Homeworking will be easier after the pandemic. If white-collar employees end up working from home just half the week, the fall in commuting would slash their emissions, pollution and rush-hour traffic while boosting national happiness.” In the New York Times Timothy Egan suggests, “Millions of people may settle into another workplace following the world war on the coronavirus – their homes. Up to half the jobs in the United Sates could be done, at least partly, from home, by one estimate. Currently, fewer than 4 percent of jobs allow this. The benefits of telecommuting – in terms of personal time, on the environment, on the psyche and on production, could be enormous.” And, in the New York Times Claire Cain Miller makes a similar point, “For white-collar, salaried workers, coronavirus is, in a way, offering a natural experiment, by forcing companies to let people work from home, create their own schedules and spend more time with their family. It could convince companies that constant face time is unnecessary.”          

Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to conceal their being pregnant. Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to obscure their need, their want, to tend more to their infants. Women with ambition often decide it best for professional purposes to work full tilt outside the home even when they have small children. Fact is that in each of these cases women with ambition will be far better positioned if working from home becomes mainstream.

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