For most new mothers who breastfeed and have to travel for business, the options have been few and undesirable. They can try to suspend travel altogether—something that's impractical for working women who nurse for many months. They can dump all that valuable milk after it's been pumped—a cringe-inducing thought to anyone who's ever been strapped to a breast pump.
Or, they can go through the logistical headaches of storing and transporting milk—things like reserving a hotel room with a fridge that has enough space for bottles, finding a way to cool the package that will ship the milk, dealing with the Transportation Security Administration, and covering the cost of overnighting it back home to the baby.
Yet, at least at one company, those challenges may soon be alleviated. Starting in September, IBM is launching a program that not only pays for new mothers working at the tech company to ship milk home, but coordinates the whole program through technology that employees can download to their smartphones. Fortune first reported the news on Monday.
The company intends for the service to work like this: An IBM employee who is nursing and planning to travel tells the app where she'll be staying and the number of temperature-controlled packages she'll need. When she gets to her hotel, pre-addressed shipping packages will be waiting for her at the front desk. Once she fills them, they will be picked up and shipped overnight back home, all at IBM's expense. "We do all the work so the mother doesn't have to think about any of the details," says Barbara Brickmeier, vice president of benefits at IBM.
IBM isn't the only company that will pay for the cost of shipping breast milk back to an employee's baby, says Jennifer Owens, editorial director for Working Mother Magazine. Of the 100 companies on her publication's list ranking the best places for working moms, 24 offer to recoup the cost for mothers while on business travel. (Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, which is not on Working Mother's list, pays for breastfeeding mothers to bring along a travel companion, such as a spouse or nanny who can watch the baby, when trips exceed four days.)
But in these programs, Owens says, employees typically have to organize the shipping themselves, and then get reimbursed when they fill out their expense report. IBM covers the cost upfront, and appears to be distinctive for the convenience it offers. "It's almost like a concierged way of doing it," Owens says. "To think beyond just allowing the expense, but to make it easy and seamless to be done—that's really commendable." IBM is one of only two companies that have been on Working Mother's list since its inception nearly 30 years ago.
The idea for the service came out of a meeting between Brickmeier and her team, who were brainstorming ways to help mothers ease back into work. Several shared stories of their own experiences dealing with nursing and traveling, and those they'd heard from others. "We know we could have just provided a reimbursement and been done with it," Brickmeier said, "but that's putting all the responsibilities on the mother."
IBM's milk-shipping benefit launches at a time when companies are increasingly rolling out more niceties to attract and retain women. A growing number of corporations are introducing longer parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Others, like Vodafone, are allowing new moms to work part-time for their first six months yet retain their full-time salaries. And some, like Apple and Facebook, have introduced benefits that cover egg freezing for non-medical reasons for women who choose to delay having a child.
What's interesting about IBM's benefit, and the one Apple and Facebook rolled out, is that they don't just offer flexibility or more time off—the traditional domain of benefits for new moms. Rather, they are initiatives that allow women to continue doing their jobs, keeping up their pace of travel or working during periods of their lives when they otherwise might have taken time off to have a child.
Some, of course, could view such corporate benefits as a clever way to limit the requests women make for adjusted schedules or time off. Yet many see such perks as expanding the number of choices women have, as well as helping to level the playing field for new mothers so that having a baby doesn't require major career sacrifices.
"This is really about providing options for new mothers," Brickmeier said. While some may choose to take a long leave of absence, and others may want return to work slowly, there are those who prefer to ramp up sooner and travel for critical meetings or events. "There's nothing behind the scenes here," she said. "It’s all about flexibility. Just like any other employer, our talent base is really important for us and we want to make it easy for them."
Brickmeier would not say how much the program will cost IBM. "The thing I can say is that it's not a huge cost in the grand scheme of things," she said. Getting and keeping qualified, talented female employees, however, is.