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How a breastfeeding company changed its approach to gender-inclusive language

Cultural change involves a complex process of unlearning and relearning.

How a breastfeeding company changed its approach to gender-inclusive language
[Josie Elias/Adobe Stock]

The realm of branding and advertising is undergoing a powerful shift toward inclusive representation and away from a gendered binary. From fashion designers and retailers using a beautiful spectrum of models to the rise of clothing brands that are “gender-fluid,” companies are celebrating a wider range of human bodies and experiences than ever before. Similar signals of a cultural change around gender assumptions are evident in other practices, such as including your preferred pronouns in email signatures or Zoom handles. This move toward greater representation and inclusivity is important, but when a brand has intentionally centered around a very gendered word (“mama”) and female-associated activity (breastfeeding), it can be difficult to embrace change.

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As a co-founder and CEO of Mamava—the category creator of freestanding lactation pods used mostly for pumping on the go—I’ve thought a lot about gender and bias. The concept for Mamava was born when I was breastfeeding and traveling for work, and couldn’t find sanitary or comfortable spaces to plug in a breast pump. (Breastfeeding folks without their babies need a private space to plug in a breast pump, disrobe, and express milk.) The design of everyday spaces is too often predicated on users who are male and able-bodied. As a breastfeeding woman, I felt the effects of invisibility and the negative impacts of bias. I started Mamava as a way to serve those people whose physiological needs for breastfeeding or pumping simply weren’t addressed in the built environments they inhabited.

As our company has grown, however, our customers—as well as our community of breastfeeding parents on social media—have requested more inclusive language. Their feedback has prompted us to reconsider the language we use on, and about, our products. Today, my team and I increasingly understand how the cultural gender “standard” of male/female is predicated on a binary understanding that’s not only limiting, but also erases a whole constellation of identities. As a result, people feel unseen, unsupported, and unwelcomed.

Recognizing the negative effects of invisible bias in the designed world has directly informed my thinking on the invisible bias in language—even in, or especially in, a breastfeeding company. Our intention has always been to provide the infrastructure necessary to make breastfeeding mothers feel seen, supported, and welcomed wherever they go. While many breastfeeding parents are women who identify as mothers, assuming that all breastfeeding parents are women who identify as mothers has the unintended consequence of excluding people who also feed their babies human milk from their bodies, but who don’t identify as either a woman or as a mother. In solving for one invisible gender bias, we didn’t want to perpetuate another.

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So at Mamava, we’ve made the decision to update our marketing, sales, and product copy with gender-inclusive language to reflect a greater array of parents. This work has not been without difficult internal conversations in team gatherings and in staff meetings. In the end it’s not about removing the word mama entirely, but about taking a “yes and” approach so all our audiences feel seen and welcomed by the brand. Mamava remains our brand name, but we don’t address pod users as “mama” on signage in our pods. (For example, we changed “Looking good, Mama” to “Looking good” on the mirror in our pods, a simple but meaningful modification.)

As a leader of a company trying to change the culture of breastfeeding, I recognize that cultural change involves a complex process of unlearning and relearning. As businesses and workplaces strive for greater inclusivity, it’s imperative to re-examine the language we use so it’s not just business as usual. In the spirit of ongoing personal education, I offer you the following tenets that have helped guide our work.

Language is always evolving. Today, we use Google as a verb. But it wasn’t a word until 1998. The history of language is dynamic and the words we use change to adapt to users’ needs. Instead of viewing language as written in stone, we all have an active role to play in changing the words we use. (I wish my high school English teacher had taught me that!) For example, using “they” rather than a gendered pronoun (his/her) is not incorrect—it’s direct evidence of language changing to meet the moment.

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Language shapes the way we think. It’s easy to imagine language as a simple, linear process—words are expressed (whether spoken or written), words are received. But communication doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The words we use are always shaped by our context, audience, purpose, and historical time. And we, in turn, are shaped by the language available to us. Using gender-inclusive language therefore not only recognizes other ways of being human, but also expands how we think about human beings.

Language shapes the problems we solve. Many caregiving challenges, from paid leave to childcare, are often framed as women’s issues. But the seemingly small shift to gender-inclusive language of “parents” recenters the issue on the fact that our care economy is broken, and that it’s a systemic problem that affects families. Moving away from gendered language and toward inclusive language is a powerful way to reorient how we think about problems and how we work to address them.

We’ve inherited a cultural and linguistic legacy that’s patriarchal, white, hetero-normative, and predicated on the gender binary. But the world we live in is—and always has been—far more diverse. From marketing copy to product descriptions to job ads, the more businesses can be inclusive of a wide range of human experiences, the more they can recognize and serve a broader range of needs. As leaders in businesses, we have an important role to play in supporting such progressive and positive social change.

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Sascha Mayer is the CEO and Co-founder of Mamava. Mamava, based in Burlington, VT, is the leading expert in lactation space design. 

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