Stepping in and stepping up: Companies’ role in supporting mothers to breastfeed

by Ellen Piwoz, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation | @EllenPiwoz | Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Monday, 15 May 2017 14:50 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Three out of five women around the world do not have access to paid maternity leave

Many working mothers can relate to the challenge of planning for time off from work after having a baby. Yet most—three out of five women around the world—do not have access to paid maternity leave, forcing them to make the impossible choice between parenting and work. There are many reasons why maternity protections are important; chief among them is their contribution to the health and well-being of families, including a mother’s ability to breastfeed.

National governments have an important role to play in implementing policies that ensure women have the time, space and support they need to achieve their breastfeeding goals. In fact, ninety-eight countries currently meet the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) standard of at least 14-weeks’ leave. But the private sector—which accounts for nine out of 10 jobs in developing countries—plays a critical role in implementing these policies and creating workplaces that protect, promote and support breastfeeding.

Less than 40 percent of babies around the world are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. This number varies depending on where you are in the world, but studies have shown that countries with generous maternity leave policies have higher exclusive breastfeeding rates. This matters for a variety of reasons: breastfed babies have been shown to suffer from fewer illnesses, perform better in school and even go on to earn more as adults. In short, breastfeeding prepares children for a prosperous future. The cognitive benefits associated with breastfeeding alone translate to global savings upwards of $300 billion a year.

These benefits extend to businesses too. Research shows that businesses that offer paid parental leave see greater productivity and less turnover. Providing the time and space to breastfeed has shown to make women more productive at work, reduce turnover and absenteeism, lower medical costs and attract talent. This all affects the bottom line, as replacing workers is an expensive endeavour: finding and training a replacement can add up to six to nine months of an employee's salary.

The private sector is in a unique position to not only shape national and corporate policies, but also to shift social norms. Where national policies exist, the private sector has an important role to play in upholding the law and raising the bar. Before India’s recent maternity leave expansion, for example, companies had already started expanding upon the national 12-week maternity leave policy. Consulting and tech firms like Ericson, Microsoft and Accenture had proactively enhanced their benefits months before a new Maternity Benefit Amendment Bill was passed.

Earlier this year, Parliament approved the bill, which more than doubled its federally mandated paid maternity leave to 26-weeks, surpassing France, Germany and Japan in terms of maternity benefits provided. The new law also makes it mandatory for every company with fifty or more employees to have a space for mothers to express milk. Approximately 1.8 million working women in the organized labor sector stand to benefit from the new law.


In the absence of a national policy, the private sector can step in to fill the gaps. In the U.S., where, shamefully, no paid leave policy mandate exists, companies like Netflix, Spotify, Twitter and Facebook are paving the way. In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation expanded its own family leave policy to one year of paid time off after a child’s birth or adoption for mothers and fathers alike.

Such leadership by private companies and foundations in the U.S. is bringing national attention to the issue, prompting state and local governments to take matters into their own hands. In just the last few years, state policymakers in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have all recently passed paid leave mandates. Paid leave is also gaining unprecedented traction at the national level, with both 2016 presidential candidates announcing plans for paid maternity leave and members of Congress currently discussing the possibility of a national mandate.

More can and must be done to further support working women, especially those who fall through the cracks. Regardless of national policies, most women who work in the informal sector receive no workplace protection or support following pregnancy. India’s new policy, for example, leaves out the vast majority (99 percent) of women who are employed in the unorganized sector as contractual labor, farmers and self-employed entrepreneurs and housewives.

This holds true for most economically active women in developing countries. In the formal economy, national mandates must enable businesses to realistically and reliably implement policies, so that a culture of disincentives to hire women does not grab hold.

When we remove these barriers—when we give working women the space and time to breastfeed—we make things better and greater for everyone. Yes, we all have a stake in supporting women to breastfeed, but more importantly, we all have a role in giving women an equal chance.

Our work to increase breastfeeding rates around the world—a key priority for the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation—will continue to be a challenge if governments and businesses don’t step up. Let’s remember that women—as active participants of the global economy—are drivers of growth. Through their role as farmers, entrepreneurs, consumers and mothers—women are major drivers of development and influencers of the health and well-being of their families. Simply put, women nourish the next generation of workers. Thus, the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding is a shared good. Which means, it must be a shared effort, too.

Ellen Piwoz is a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation