Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's Not Always About the Boobs

This week's misdirected firestorm is brought to us by an assistant professor at American University. Assistant Professor Adrienne Pine showed up for the first day of class with her sick infant in tow. During the lecture, she breastfed the child.

The student paper picked up the story and ran with an entirely wrongheaded angle, accusing the professor of "lactivism," i.e. whipping out one's milk swollen breasts in public to make a political statement. I doubt, based on Ms. Pine's own statements that la leche league type activism was the professor's intent. (Note: If you click the link, you have to scroll down past the large and annoying ad to get to Ms. Pine's piece.)

The issue at AU isn't breastfeeding. It doesn't matter if Ms. Pine paused her work to breastfeed, mix a bottle or offer her little darling a swig of her iced coffee.

And while I think some professional decorum is nice in terms of which body parts one exposes on the job, I seriously doubt that any college student of either sex would be scarred by the brief sight of a breast. They've all seen plenty of boobs, I'm sure.

The relevant issues here are professionalism and to a lesser extent, child care.

What Ms. Pine did by bringing her child to work was grossly, unfathomably unprofessional. No professional does her best work while caring for a child. Any new mom knows that even the presence of a sleeping child is a minor distraction, because they can wake at any moment. Small children are unpredictable and have many needs. Their care is a full-time job unto itself; that's why day care providers and nannies have jobs.

Undergraduates at American University pay over $40,000 a year in tuition. They deserve the undivided attention of their teachers during pre-scheduled class times and office hours.

It doesn't matter if AU is, as Ms. Pine asserts, a family friendly employer.

Family friendliness doesn't require an employer to include an employee's family in the workplace. Here's a real world example: One of the teachers at the Grape's preschool had a baby last year. When she returned to work after maternity leave, the very family friendly preschool arranged for the baby to be placed in onsite child care. At no point was the baby in the classroom during the school day and the new mom went to visit only during scheduled breaks in her work day. That kind of family friendliness works for everyone, and does great things for employee morale without short changing the school's clients/students.

Those like Ms. Pine, who grossly abuse hard won privileges, jeopardize the very existence of family friendly policies for future hires. She's like the office worker who shows up in a tube top and gets the summer casual dress code revoked for everybody.

Bringing the baby to class shows a breathtaking lack of professional judgment.

If I were the head of AU's anthropology department, I'd investigate whether Ms. Pine has a habit of being less than fully present during teaching hours, and re-evaluate her future with the university accordingly.

Ms. Pine claims she didn't want to cancel. Here's the thing: if you are a college professor, you know in advance which days and hours you will need to teach. You line up day care, and then, when it's really important, like the first day of school, you line up BACK UP day care in advance, because it's completely foreseeable that infants will catch colds. Indeed small kids are biologically hard wired to fall ill and demand extra attention precisely when their parents have pressing competing demands.

Ms. Pine was by her own admission aware of back up day care options, but at "$70 to $140 a day," dismissed these as too pricey. Here in Boston, those prices are a bargain for last minute coverage, but that's not the point. Affordable child care is hard to come by in this country, and that's a legitimate social issue we as moms should address in a thoughtful, persistent manner.

But the costs associated with raising the professor's kids are not the students' problem. Nor is a professor with cushy hours and a prestigious gig at a desirable urban university the perfect poster child for the universal plights of over-extended, impoverished working moms.

And specific to Ms. Pine: Does she plan to bring the kid into work every time s/he sniffles? If the cafeteria workers and secretaries at AU need to make day care arrangements for their kids, shouldn't the professors (who make more and have more control over scheduling) share the same burden? What about future offspring? Five years down the line, will Ms. Pine bring a whole gaggle of children to class and park them in the back row with snacks and video games?

The students sitting in Ms. Pine's class, buzzing about AU's own Boobgate instead of reading their assignments, are (presuming full time enrollment with the usual five courses per term) paying nearly $4000 to learn the subject matter of their anthropology course from Ms. Pine.

And she took advantage of those paying clients in a way that a reasonable employer should not have to tolerate.

Ms. Pine is smart to try to make this brouhaha all about breast feeding. Doing so tees up a sex discrimination defense in the event AU takes issue with her behavior. Her response to the student paper went on about how breastfeeding is a natural act. So what? So are lots of other things good employees don't do on the job, because of basic professionalism.

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