Does breast-feeding make women seem incompetent?
New moms just can't win. It often seems that society judges women who don't breastfeed, but now a new study from Montana University finds that women who breastfeed are widely viewed as less competent than non-lactating peers. Here, a brief guide:
What did the study find?
That breastfeeding mothers are the "victims of bias." In a series of experiments, breastfeeding women were regularly perceived, by both men and women, as being less competent than other women. Men were just as likely as women to be biased against breastfeeding mothers. "Perhaps [this is] the reason that surprisingly low numbers of women breastfeed," says Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux at Care2.
How was the study conducted?
In one experiment, 30 students were told actress and mother Brooke Shields was either breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. Those who were told she was breastfeeding viewed Shields as "significantly more warm and friendly compared to the bottle-feeding mother, but significantly less competent in general, and less competent in math specifically." In another study, 55 students were asked to judge a woman based on messages left on her answering machine. Students heard one of three messages: a man referencing the woman's need to go home and breastfeed the baby; another about her needing to go home and change into a strapless bra; and a neutral message making no mention of breast-related issues. Both the breastfeeding woman and the sexy strapless-bra-needing woman were perceived as less competent than the woman who got a neutral voicemail. And asked whether they'd hire these women, the students gave the breastfeeding woman the lowest score.
Just how conclusive are these results?
There are plenty of skeptics. "Study participants weren't looking at and judging an actual woman nursing an actual baby," says KJ Dell'Antonia at Slate. "Instead, they were assessing the general competency (and specifically the math abilities) of a woman they had not seen or met, based on a set of facts or a recorded message that included the information that the woman was or had been a nursing mother." So it's hard to know, says Dell'Antonia, what this "tiny" study really tells us.
How do we combat this possible bias?
Researchers say more women need to breastfeed in public to diminish the bias. "More visible breastfeeding mothers should prompt people to wrestle with and debate the issues," the study says. "With time, greater numbers of women who breastfeed translates to less prejudice."