The XX Factor

An Interview with a Lady Who Used a Breast Pump in an Open Office Plan

Which of these women are pumping right now?

Earlier this week, it came to light that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called a lawyer “disgusting” when she requested a break from a deposition so that she could pump breast milk for her three-month-old baby. A spokesman later explained that Trump thought the lawyer wanted to pump in front of him, which he found “disgusting,” rather than privately.

To find out more about pumping while surrounded by coworkers, we spoke with Seeta Peña Gangadharan, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute program fellow and an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. After moving from Washington, D.C., to New York with 10-month-old twins in 2013, Gangadharan discovered that her best option was to pump at her desk in the middle of an open office plan. (The following conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Why did you decide to pump in an open office plan?

I know that there was some kind of hullaballoo in HR over the fact that there wasn’t really a room that was designated as a nursing room. The only private room that we have is a utility closet. People do their very private phone calls from there and it’s not awesome. It’s filled with stuff and it’s tiny and it’s not comfortable. It made me think, Um, this is not going to work

When my kids were six months old, I went to this conference in Detroit and pumped during a session that I was facilitating. During a moment when I asked people to break up into small groups, I got out my kit, put on my poncho, and pumped and walked around to check in with the groups. That was by far the craziest thing I had ever done. From that, I knew that I could just pump wherever, and so I decided to try it.

How many people were in the office?

I’d say on average maybe eight people.

Did you tell people you were going to pump, or did you just start pumping? Either way, did people say anything about it?

I didn’t ask for permission—what would they say? “That’s not cool”? “Go to the utility closet”? People eventually just tuned it out, apart from the occasional, “What is that rhythmical, very annoying sound?” And occasionally a few giggles. I was pretty discreet, because of the poncho.

Tell me about the poncho. 

If you could imagine what a hippie woman in the southwest United States would be wearing while going hiking—beige with black stripes, a light cotton. It provided complete coverage, easy access. The other thing is that I had to wash my kit. I had a portable OXO brush and a little suitcase for the bottles. I kept the milk in the refrigerator in my little lunchbox and I would wash the parts in the sink. It was all there for people to see.

Did the stress of the situation affect how easy it was for you to pump?

No, not really. I was overproducing milk. Especially when you have twins, you just have to do things without thinking about them. It’s almost as if I didn’t have time to filter whether it was going to be strange for me or for my colleagues—I just had to do it. I had the portable kit at work, and you have to hug yourself to keep the [breastshields] in place, and then do one-handed typing and put your phone on your shoulder. I’m sure I looked hilarious.

Do you have any sort of general advice or conclusion that you’ve drawn from this experience?

My experience with being in an open office is that they have a startup ethos. In my case it’s a younger office, there doesn’t seem to be anyone over 45, and it’s mostly male-dominated. Part of being in an open-office situation is you go with the flow. You may be privy to somebody’s conversation with their boyfriend or girlfriend. There are people who are constantly trying to figure out how to coexist in this environment. My experience using a breast pump in the office fit squarely into that.

So for women who are in that environment, I would say that if you feel comfortable in your body, you should definitely pump in the open office. Because what’s the other option—going into the utility closet? Pumping in the bathroom? Forget it. That is a terrible alternative, and it feels like there’s shame involved with that, that you have to go into this little hovel and hide from the others. It shouldn’t be like that.