Bias Against Breastfeeding Mothers in Male-Dominated Society

This research was a combined finding of three experiments that tried to assess the bias against breastfeeding mothers. In the first study, it was seen that most of the participants thought breastfeeding mothers were incompetent. The second study showed that the participants were biased against breastfeeding mothers when breasts were sexualized. The third study revealed that the participants rated a breastfeeding interviewee as less competent in work and mathematics. The authors conclude that, “Results suggest that although breastfeeding may be economical and healthy, the social cost is potentially great.”

It is traditionally known that menstruation, pregnancy and breastfeeding are viewed with discomfort in a male-dominated society. These aspects of womanhood often make females appear inferior to their male counterparts. Some studies have shown that this perceived decline in competence is usually blamed on an increase in warmth and kindness in the women. This phenomenon of decline of competence is called “paternalistic prejudice.” This prejudice affects women more; men seldom face it in their workplaces and are often treated with extra leniency when they become fathers. This research was a combination of three experiments to understand the perceptions regarding breastfeeding mothers’ competence.

* In the first study, 30 students (83.3 percent Caucasian, 58 percent women, all with an average age of 19 years without children of their own) were included. They were given a brochure on Brooke Shields. Half of the participants got a preview of a fictitious book written on her experience with breastfeeding and the other half of the participants got to know her experience with bottle feeding. They were then asked to rate her competence, warmth and kindness traits.
* For the second study, 61 students (91.9 percent Caucasian, 68 percent women, and with an average age of 20 years without children of their own) were selected. They were divided into three groups (breastfeeding, neutral and sexualized breast situations) and were given advertisements on a breast cream. One cream was supposed to be applied after nursing, one cream was required to be applied after jogging and one cream was to be applied before being intimate.
* For the third study, 55 participants (89.3 percent Caucasian, 68 percent women, and with average age of 22 without children of their own) were included. They were asked to rate the competence of four different women who staged a voicemail. One was referring to a breastfeeding condition, one to being a mother-only situation, one to a sexualized breast condition and the last to a neutral woman situation.

Key findings
* Study 1 showed that there was a paternalistic prejudice where Shields was rated low on competence and high on warmth in the breastfeeding situation. Both the sexes rated similarly.
* The second study showed that there was an existing bias against women who were breastfeeding, as well as with those who sexualized breasts.
* The third study showed that the breastfeeding woman was rated negatively in terms of competence when compared to neutral women. The breastfeeding mothers rated low on math and chances of being hired when compared to mother-only situations. With both breastfeeding and a sexualized condition, the women were rated negatively by the participants.

Next steps/shortcomings
The authors admit that there are missing pieces to the experiments. In the second study, for example, there were no control situations. Also, in the experiment the advertisements did not specify if the sexualized or non-sexualized conditions referred to a mother’s breast. It was observed that the participants were all college-aged students and the results obtained may be different with older participants. The authors speculate that they could not assess if the maternal breast was viewed as an object by the participants that could result in negative feelings against both breastfeeding and sexualized breast conditions. Further studies bringing in these aspects are necessary.

This study combines three different experiments to show that breastfeeding mothers are subjected to a bias in terms of their perceived competence. Authors suggest that the change toward eliminating this prejudice is a difficult one. They recommend that mothers need to be educated that they might face prejudice because of their breastfeeding status. This could help them protect themselves from embarrassment and negative influence regarding their breastfeeding practices. The final aim would be to “increase initiation of and duration of breastfeeding, without sacrificing people’s perception of the mother’s competence”. The authors suggest that as more women take up breastfeeding there will be less prejudice against breastfeeding mothers.

For More Information:
Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias against Mothers Who Breastfeed
Publication Journal: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 2011
By Jessi L. Smith; Kristin Hawkinson; Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana

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