Maternity leave isn’t enough, now IBM will ship breast milk for free

So much easier.
So much easier.
Image: AP Photo/Nikolas Giakoumidis
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IBM is going to make life a little bit easier for its working mothers with babies—the company will launch a program to ship employees’ expressed breast milk home when they’re traveling for work, the company tells Quartz.

An IBM employee will be able to use a smartphone app before she travels to say where she will be. Packages will be waiting for her when she arrives at the hotel, and the delivery service will pick them up and deliver them overnight, IBM spokesperson Laurie Friedman tells Quartz.

The program, which was first reported by Fortune, will launch in September in the US and then be rolled out globally, Friedman says.

Working Mother, a website and magazine that has been putting out a list of the top 100 companies for working mothers for the past 29 years, has included IBM on every one of those lists. It’s currently in the top 10. “In the 100 best companies, 24 companies will reimburse employees for the cost of shipping their breast milk home. Half of the top 10 do,” says Working Mother editorial director Jennifer Owens. None have an app that makes it a seamless, and free, part of the work travel experience, she says.

Women often do the “pump and dump,” wasting breast milk, or they deal with the hassle of arranging their own shipments and asking for reimbursement. It is a specific problem, and not one that most women identify as a barrier to returning to work—they’re mostly looking for flexibility and enough pay to cover the cost of childcare, Owens says. According to a 2011 Working Mother survey (pdf, pg. 11), only 5% of at-home mothers said they stopped working because of travel demands.

But breast feeding, especially for traveling executives, is one of those issues that is an extreme inconvenience for the women who do it, and one that they have just kind of been dealing with.

“If the men were dealing with breast milk on the road, this would have been figured out a long time ago,” Owens says.

There’s an increasing focus on women’s issues in the public conversation, and on abysmal female representation in the tech industry in particular (especially among its highest ranks). More and more companies are offering more perks to working mothers.

IBM’s initiative stands in contrast to another which got a lot of attention recently: Companies paying for egg freezing. Apple and Facebook both announced that they would pay for egg-freezing for their female employees. IBM also covers egg-freezing for employees, but only if there is a medical need to do so, Friedman says. Facebook does not cover the cost of shipping breast milk, and Apple did not reply to a request for comment.

To be sure, they are very different programs, but they also risk communicating different priorities to employees—one may send the message that children can be delayed in favor of work, which appeals to some women but certainly not all; the other suggests that a company will work to not only accommodate, but anticipate the needs of its working mothers. To be fair, Facebook offers four months paid maternity and paternity leave for new parents, while Apple offers mothers 14 weeks after birth, and fathers 6 weeks, the same as IBM.