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IBM pays for women to ship breast milk, pushes ahead in the race to attract female tech talent

IBM set a new precedent for family policies by offering to ship new moms' breast milk home when they're traveling for work. Now the question is, when will other tech companies follow suit?

Image: iStock Photo/balenopix

Breastfeeding is incredibly beneficial to mothers and babies. But working moms often have to "pump and dump" the milk they produce while they're traveling — they pump the milk out so it doesn't dry up, but since it has to be refrigerated, they must usually pour it down the drain. Or, they have to try to figure out the logistical nightmare that is finding a way to keep the milk refrigerated in a hotel and while in transit, and TSA doesn't allow women without babies to carry breast milk on planes.

Last week, however, IBM announced a service that will solve that problem for its employees who are new moms.

In September, IBM will launch a delivery program for nursing moms who are away on business, which is the first of its kind because it is a service moms can use to ship their expressed milk back home overnight in temperature-controlled packages — and IBM will pay for it.

Here's the breakdown of how it works: A mother uses the mobile app to make arrangements and order supplies before her business trip. The cooling and packaging materials and labels will be waiting for her at the hotel's front desk. The cooling unit is similar to what is used when certain pharmaceuticals are transported, and cools on demand by pushing a button. So, if the hotel doesn't have a refrigerator, the milk can still stay fresh. Then, the hotel ships the box back home to her baby overnight.

Barbara Brickmeier, the vice president of benefits at IBM, along with her team, came up with the program. Her primary goal was to make the transition for new mothers as easy as possible.

"[We wanted to] make it simpler than making an airline reservation," Brickmeier said. "All she needs to do is tell us where, when, how many days she's gone, and how much volume she intends [to pump]."

She also wanted to make sure it was deployable globally, as IBM operates in 170 countries. The app and service they developed can work anywhere.

"This is a small thing, but it means a lot to new moms," Brickmeier said.

Many other companies cover the cost of shipping breast milk of working mothers, but most leave it up to the woman to figure out, she added. IBM is the first to handle the mechanics and technology of it.

IBM has always had some of the best policies for working parents. The company implemented a paid family leave of absence policy in 1956 and now provides 14 weeks paid leave for new moms and six weeks for new dads and/or adoptive parents.

In the 1980s, IBM introduced flexible work options and launched the first national corporate child care initiative. Since then, IBM has added programs like childcare provider referral services and funded daycare centers near their offices. They also have support for parents of special needs children, like reimbursing up to $50,000 for certain treatments or therapies not covered by insurance, and a program that allows employees to have $5,000 for adoption and/or surrogacy.

The male-dominated tech industry is trying to become more friendly to women by adding more flexible policies. For instance, last year, Facebook and Twitter announced they would pay for women to freeze their eggs as a way to incentivize staying in the workforce longer. Though it may be optimal for some women, egg freezing is still a risky surgical procedure that may or may not work, and in reality, the solution is better for companies than the women it's targeting.

Large tech corporations have some of the most flexible parental policies and offer the most paid maternal leave of any industry, but in the US, even paid maternity leave is still an anomaly — in fact, it is one of only three countries left in the world that doesn't guarantee it.

The tech industry is making strides in filling the pipeline and getting more women into jobs, but keeping them there is another challenge. According to Lean In, 43% of women leave the workforce because they stay home to care for their children. So, a change like IBM is making, albeit a small one, makes it easier for women to stay in the workforce when they have children.

Brickmeier said she hopes other companies will follow IBM's lead, and she expects them to. Programs like these don't require much to execute in cost, technological innovation, or time, but their impact is huge — they can improve employer/employee loyalty, satisfaction, and value of work.

"We love being innovators and trailblazers, but more than that, we like helping women," she said.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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