Monday, April 25, 2011

Breastfeeding and perceived competence at work

Breastfeeding A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin will be of interest to readers who think about sex discrimination. Jessie L. Smith, Kristin Hawkinson, and Kelli Paull, all at Montana State University conducted three studies designed to get at paternal bias and perceptions of breastfeeding women more specifically. The description of the studies is entitled Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias against Mothers Who Breastfeed. Thanks to Sage Journals, which has made this article free to the public.

The article describes the growing body of social psychology research that documents how women who are mothers are perceived as less competent but more warm than are men or women who are not mothers. The studies' authors wanted to test how breastfeeding fit into those perceptions. They found, generally, that mothers who breastfeed were found to be less competent--to the point that it made the test subjects less likely to hire them. Here's the abstract:

Drawing from the objectification literature, three experiments tested the hypothesis that breastfeeding mothers are the victims of bias. In Study 1, participants rated a woman who had breastfed as incompetent. Study 2 replicated these effects and determined that the bias was specific to conditions that sexualized the breast. In Study 3, participants interacted with a confederate in which attention was drawn to her as a mother, as a mother who breastfeeds, as a woman with sexualized breasts, or in a neutral condition. Results showed the breastfeeding confederate was rated significantly less competent in general, in math and work specifically, and was less likely to be hired compared to all other conditions, except for the sexualized breast condition. Importantly, the breastfeeding mother emphasis and the sexualized breast emphasis resulted in equally negative evaluations. Results suggest that although breastfeeding may be economical and healthy, the social cost is potentially great.

And here's one of the key paragraphs from the discussion:

One focal point of the current project was on perceptions of the breastfeeding mother in the workplace. Study 1 showed that people assume a breastfeeding woman would experience more sexist events in her career compared to a bottle-feeding woman. Study 2 and Study 3 showed that the breastfeeding mother’s workplace competence was specifically diminished.

One of the most interesting things to me was that in the third study, the breastfeeding woman and the woman whose breasts were sexualized, but who was not linked with breastfeeding, were rated less competent at equal rates. The authors suggest that the cause for this was that having people think about a woman's body parts led them to objectify that woman and to discount her personhood. There also was no difference based on the gender of the subjects--both men and women rated breastfeeding women as less competent.Finally, there was no observed motherhood penalty, although the authors suggest that could be caused by the design of the studies.

It all makes me want to say, in the words of Julia Roberts in the movie, Erin Brockovich, "They're just boobs, Ed."


Employment Discrimination, Scholarship, Workplace Trends | Permalink

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