12/02/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

Breastfeeding at the Bar Exam?


Kristin Pagano recently asked the Illinois Bar to accommodate her ability to breastfeed her newly-born child while taking the two-day bar exam this February. The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar has established procedures for requesting reasonable accommodations and Pagano followed them. The only issue for the association to decide was whether Pagano's request was reasonable.

Unfortunately, Ms. Pagano's request was initially denied.

Her request? That she not be penalized for time used to breastfeed her child. She asked to pump breast milk every two to three hours throughout the exam, which typically lasts eight hours.

The Board of Admissions initially decided that Ms. Pagano could leave the room every two to three hours and then return to testing, but that an adjusted time would not be allowed. After reconsideration and public pressure, they revised their decision to allow her reasonable accommodations. But why do women, and mothers, need to put their identities to the side in order to be successful?

Many are uncomfortable about the idea of women nursing their babies in public; subsequently laws have been created to allow for it. Many people have no idea what it means to hook up a breast pump to your body and watch it extract milk for your baby. It is not easy. It is not relaxing. It holds no benefit during a testing situation.

If we don't acknowledge that women breastfeed for the physical and emotional health of their babies and talk about it, then we risk marginalizing all women. By relegating nursing or pumping to dingy bathrooms and dismissive and half-hearted accommodations, we are saying that nursing mothers are not worthy of consideration. We make the already difficult navigation for mothers in the workplace even more difficult and continue to exacerbate problems of glass ceilings, sticky floors and pay inequity.

But it's not just breastfeeding mothers. Last week, Congress denied Representative Tammy Duckworth's request to vote by proxy although her medically-ordered bed rest precludes her from flying to Washington during her final month of pregnancy. Leaders cited the need for a hardline on proxy voting and ignored calls for reasonable accommodations. What would Congress lose if it acknowledged Representative Duckworth's identity? Is the "slippery slope" that lawmakers fear real, or just a way to ignore identity?

Workplaces are working best for people with dominant identities because of a general lack of understanding and appreciation of other identities. In these cases, mothers must leave their identities at the door.

And yet, there are ways for identities to be acknowledged. In 2007, the Massachusetts Supreme Court allowed Sophia Currier time to express milk during her Medical Boards. In 2012, the Law School Admissions Counsel, after public pressure and a petition, allowed accommodations for expressing milk during the LSAT exam. Last July, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidelines which made it clear that it is illegal not to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women.

While Ms. Pagano's request for adjusted time was granted, Ms. Duckworth has accepted Congress' decision. If we truly believe in equity rather than simply equal opportunity, then we must understand that the rules will need to change. Ms. Pagano, Ms. Duckworth and others deserve reasonable accommodations. Until we acknowledge differing needs, we leave too many who are forced to put their health and well-being on the line just to participate.