July 13, 2024
How I ended up pumping milk in a bathroom stall at JPM 2024

Since having a baby 10 months ago, I’ve learned many things. Chief among them: Pumping sucks. But skipping a session ends up being even more painful.

Naturally, I expected navigating the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco would be more complicated this year. Somehow, between back-to-back meetings and presentations, I’d have to bust out that abominable contraption and do my thing. Needless to say, this can’t happen out in the open. It’s why employers are legally obligated to dedicate private space to breastfeeding moms.

So I had concerns. But surely, I told myself, after getting called out for having more presenters named Michael than female CEOs in 2018, JPM organizers will have cleaned up their act.

Man, was I wrong.

JPM didn’t take its accommodations for new mothers seriously — a failure that’s all too common in a health care industry that rarely makes space for women to hold positions of power.

Leading up to the conference, I emailed my JPM contact and asked whether there would be a lactation room at the conference for pumping. “Yes!” she responded (emphasis hers): room 711. So on Monday, with about an hour between obligations, I rode the packed Westin St. Francis elevator to the seventh floor and hustled to room 711, a normal hotel room sandwiched between other hotel rooms whose doors were propped open and affixed with signs that said they were reserved for meetings.

How I ended up pumping milk in a bathroom stall at JPM 2024
The hallway of the Westin St. Francis where the lactation room, room 711, is located on the left. The other rooms were one-on-one meeting rooms. Tara Bannow/STAT

But room 711 was locked and there was no sign saying it was a lactation room. I flagged down a nearby housekeeper who was confused by my question. I emailed my contact, confused: Was I at the right place? A half-hour and several apologetic emails later, my JPM contact let me know hotel staff had unlocked the room. It was too late: By then, I was onto my next meeting.

Maybe you’re asking: Can’t you just not pump? Friend, if only. The fact is, if someone who is breastfeeding does not pump or feed their baby regularly, they can become engorged. It’s not only painful, it can lead to infection and lower milk supply.

Since pumping was not optional, I did so in a bathroom stall. Using a pump requires assembling multiple pieces, which is tricky in a small space with no counter. I brought a manual pump to the conference because it’s smaller and lighter than my electric one. The downside is it’s painfully slow. I held up that stall for a good 25 minutes.

The JPM contact repeated her apology in an email. She said she would remind the team that the door should remain unlocked each day moving forward.

But the same thing happened on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was able to pump in room 711 just once, after waiting about a half-hour for a staff member to open the door. The room was lovely. If only I could have used it more.

Asked to explain how this happened, Olivia Farrell of JPM’s media relations team passed me off to a Westin contact, explaining that this was a “facilities question for the hotel.” That person, Kelly Chamberlin, told me the hotel chose to keep room 711 locked during the conference to ensure the safety of women who are breastfeeding. But that was confusing, because keeping it locked also prohibits women from breastfeeding. I asked why they couldn’t keep the door propped, like the 1-on-1 rooms, or closed but unlocked, like the nearby press rooms. That way, anyone who uses the room could lock it once they’re inside. Chamberlin was audibly annoyed.

“The hotel just chose to do it that way for safety and security,” she said. “That’s the quote and we can look into something else for next year if that didn’t work. Thank you. Do you need anything else, Tara?”

This might sound a bit like a personal complaint, but it’s much bigger than just me. JPM is the industry conference. Its lack of planning is indicative of the health care industry’s failure to give women opportunities to occupy positions of power. In 2019, the year after STAT called out JPM for having more Michaels presenting than women, 90% of presenters were still men.

To be fair, that’s not entirely JPM’s fault. It’s because so few companies have female CEOs. In 2021, just 15% of CEOs across 300 health systems, insurers, and government programs were women. CEOs have babies, too.

And CEOs are not the only women conferences need to think of. I’m a reporter covering the business of health care, specifically hospitals, insurers, and other providers. Other women who attend JPM are bankers, analysts, lawyers, and consultants.

JPM’s lack of effort is in stark contrast to other large health and tech industry conferences, several of which told STAT they have multiple private lactation rooms on site. Some even sent photos that made me a little jealous after spending hours pumping in a bathroom.

One of them, a tech conference called CES, is happening at the same time as JPM. CES offers six suites “available for the privacy and convenience of working mothers.” Each has a deadbolt for privacy, an outlet, table, and benches. They are open during the event and after hours as needed, spokesperson Patrick Pannett told me.

HIMSS24, a health information and technology conference in March, will have seven rooms specifically dedicated to nursing mothers. Spokesperson Albe Zakes described these as private rooms available during the conference that have armchairs, side tables, and outlets.

ViVE, a digital tech conference in Los Angeles next month, is still working out the details, but there will be multiple lactation rooms on site, spokesperson Melissa Chin said. Each one will have chairs, fridges, and outlets. They’ll be open the duration of the event.

That was all wonderful to hear, and I hope JPM takes note.

Come #JPM25, I will no longer be breastfeeding, but perhaps others will. I sincerely hope they don’t have to do it in a bathroom stall.

Leave a Reply