The State Department Makes Life Difficult for Breastfeeding Mothers

At some U.S. missions abroad, diplomats are banned from bringing breast pumps into their offices.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. State Department headquarters is seen in Washington.
The U.S. State Department headquarters is seen in Washington.
The U.S. State Department headquarters is seen in Washington on Jan. 26, 2017. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Diplomats who are nursing have been arbitrarily blocked from bringing electric breast pumps into U.S. embassies around the world, sparking internal blowback at the State Department and criticism that it has fallen far behind the times on accommodating working parents.

At some, though not all, U.S. embassies, nursing mothers have been barred from bringing electric breast pumps into their offices and so-called “controlled access areas,” told by diplomatic security staff that they are considered personal electronic devices and are thus not allowed in secure government facilities, according to interviews with multiple officials and internal State Department communications reviewed by Foreign Policy.

A State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the department’s bureaus of Medical Services and Diplomatic Security “are working together to create a uniform policy governing the use of breast pumps in controlled access areas.”

Diplomats who are nursing have been arbitrarily blocked from bringing electric breast pumps into U.S. embassies around the world, sparking internal blowback at the State Department and criticism that it has fallen far behind the times on accommodating working parents.

At some, though not all, U.S. embassies, nursing mothers have been barred from bringing electric breast pumps into their offices and so-called “controlled access areas,” told by diplomatic security staff that they are considered personal electronic devices and are thus not allowed in secure government facilities, according to interviews with multiple officials and internal State Department communications reviewed by Foreign Policy.

A State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the department’s bureaus of Medical Services and Diplomatic Security “are working together to create a uniform policy governing the use of breast pumps in controlled access areas.”

The spokesperson added that the department has incorporated lactation rooms into building design standards for new office buildings and “is also working to retrofit buildings to accommodate those standards where feasible.”

The long-standing problem has fueled outrage among some working mothers at the State Department, who say the policy has for years flown in the face of federal labor laws and the department’s own goals to modernize its work policies and improve its checkered record on diversity and inclusion.

“We’re still dealing with basic accessibility issues that any private company would have had to sort out years ago so they don’t face any discrimination lawsuits,” said one U.S. diplomat familiar with the matter and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The uneven policies also appear to contradict the U.S. government’s own stance on promoting breastfeeding through global health and maternal care aid programs, according to global health policies outlined by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “In line with recommendations from global and national health authorities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics, USAID supports immediate and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months,” USAID’s website reads.

The Biden administration has vowed to make diversity and equity a top priority for the State Department after a series of studies showed the department was failing in its efforts to recruit and retain a diverse workforce and was riven with cases of bullying and harassment. The issue over breast pump access, critics say, points to larger issues of access and inclusion at the State Department, which has struggled to live up to its pledges to modernize its policies to accommodate employees and tackle long-standing challenges with retaining women and nonwhite diplomats in its ranks.

The issue long predates the Biden administration and signifies the broader problem that the national security apparatus has with workforce recruitment and retention. Julianne Smith, U.S. President Joe Biden’s current ambassador to NATO, wrote an op-ed in 2017 discussing the difficulties of being a working mother in the field of national security. “Our efforts to fight discrimination and sexism are succeeding, albeit too slowly,” she wrote.

The policies on allowing or blocking electric breast pumps in embassies are uneven and vary embassy to embassy, but it has become enough of a problem for the union representing foreign service officers to register formal complaints with the top echelons of the department following backlash from diplomats who are parents.

Diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy recounted stories of having to sneak into religious service rooms, hopefully empty, in embassies to pump breast milk as the embassies lacked nursing stations; being asked by embassy security officers to share one pump that had been screened for secure areas in the embassy among all nursing mothers; or even being pressured by a manager to forgo using their breast pump if it would require leaving the embassy to pump in the parking lot, taking time away from work.

Some U.S. embassies have nursing stations and diplomatic security agents, management officers, and other embassy personnel who work to accommodate nursing mothers. Others do not, either due to policies from the embassy’s management team, an embassy’s regional security officer, or outdated infrastructure in an embassy that doesn’t have the space or budget to upgrade its facilities to accommodate employees. For nursing mothers stationed at embassies without support from supervisors or any infrastructure to support them, it can be draining and has pushed some to consider leaving the foreign service altogether, according to interviews with several diplomats.

“If you’re not a nursing mom, you may not appreciate what all this does when you’re trying to balance a super demanding job, but it is so difficult, it is so stressful, it is such a drag on my mental health—it’s something that people who aren’t new moms can never really get,” the U.S. diplomat said. The alternative to electric breast pumps is pumping manually, which both takes much longer and is more physically arduous.

Some new breast pumps have Bluetooth technology to help track pumping sessions—a technology that could theoretically pose a security risk for areas of embassies with sensitive or classified information. Yet, as advocates of the State Department changing its policies point out, there are already policies in place to clear other essential medical equipment, such as hearing aids, blood pressure monitors, and oxygen tanks with electronic equipment.

Federal labor law requires employers to give nursing mothers adequate break time and designated private areas in an office to pump breast milk, under a 2010 amendment to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Within the federal government, however, authorities have some leeway to override certain labor standards should those standards undermine security or put at risk classified information, according to a senior State Department official familiar with the matter.

The U.S. Air Force has already implemented policies to get around this problem, however, designating breast pumps as medical devices rather than personal electronic devices. The result is that properly cleared Bluetooth-enabled breast pumps are allowed in secure facilities. The policy was put in place as part of a broader effort to make it easier for women to continue their military service after having children.

On Dec. 23, Eric Rubin, the head of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents foreign service officers, sent a letter to a top State Department official urgently requesting that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) issue new guidance for nursing mothers on what they would and would not be allowed to bring into embassies and controlled access areas so they can plan accordingly.

“If DS sees a real security issue, its leadership should establish a consistent, fast, and transparent process for screening pumps so that nursing moms know what to expect when they return to work,” Rubin wrote in the letter to John Bass, the State Department’s undersecretary for management.

“The Department should make it as easy as possible for nursing mothers to return to their demanding jobs, not create additional hurdles. … If the Department wants to increase the ranks of women in senior leadership, they should set them up to succeed every step of the way.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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