That was the question I asked myself when I read the story of Sophie Currier, an MD/PhD graduate of Harvard University who is asking for additional break time during testing for her medical license because she is breastfeeding.
The test that Currier is taking is the USMLE Step 2, a nine hour test that is the second of three tests that are necessary to become a fully licensed physician. A physician must pass at least the first two steps prior to starting their residency training. This test is usually taken one year prior to completing one's medical school education. That way, if you are not successful the first time, you have another chance to take the exam the following year, prior to starting residency. Evidently Dr. Currier took the test when she was 8.5 months pregnant the first time, and failed by a few points. If she doesn't pass the test this time, she'll have to delay starting residency for at least another year, until she passes the test.
I have a lot of sympathy for physician/mothers. Both jobs are very time consuming and tough, and juggling two full time jobs is next to impossible. One of my heroes during my internship year was a fellow intern who was a single mom to a 2 year old (her husband couldn't handle having a wife that was "smarter" than he was, so left her when she was in med school). We all tried to pitch in and help her out, but there was no doubt that that doctor mom fully pulled her share. She asked normal favors of us (as all friends would), but never asked for any special considerations because of her situation.
So my first inclination when reading the story was to think "Why couldn't the board give her some extra time to pump during the test? It's a 9 hour test, with only 45 minutes allocated to break time. Surely they could make some accommodation. I mean, this can't be a unique situation." But then I continued reading the article:
...Currier has already received special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act for dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including being granted permission to take the test over two days instead of one.
In the lawsuit, she was seeking an additional 60-minute break on each day. The board cited the need to be consistent in the amount of time given to doctoral candidates and said other nursing mothers who have taken the exam have found the 45 minutes of permitted break time sufficient. ...
I'm all in favor of her getting accommodations for her dyslexia and ADHD. But it appears that since she'll be taking the test over two days instead of one, then she'll have 4 hours of testing on one day, and 5 hours on another. She still has 45 minutes of break time that she can allocate over that time, to take when she wants. This may not be the extra hour of break time each day that she wants, but it appears on the surface to not interfere too badly with her breast feeding requirement of having to pump or feed every 3 hours. Also:
...The judge said the board offered Currier several special accommodations, including a separate testing room where she could express milk during the test or during break time, and the option to leave the test center to breast-feed during break times. ...
For its part, the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination board) responded publicly on its website to the "Currier question" regarding breastfeeding during exams.
...How have you responded to Sophie Currier’s request for extra time to express milk?
As the papers filed in court show, NBME offered Ms. Currier a variety of comfort measures and personal item exceptions, such as permission to bring multiple, assembled pumps to eliminate the time involved in cleaning, assembling, and disassembling them; permission to pump milk while taking the test and on break time, with privacy within the constraints of exam security, in the individual testing room that she receives on account of her ADA disability. We also provided her with a sample schedule demonstrating how an examinee can flexibly manage the time to take a 20- to 30-minute break every three hours. ...
And I gotta tell ya, that's starting to sound pretty fair to me. But to give myself a little reality check before I ran my mouth off (since I am male, and therefore have never faced such a situation) I bounced this question off of a colleague of mine, herself an MD/PhD, who has small children and has breast fed. After thinking a bit, and without me even telling her the part about her getting to take the test over two days, she felt that the medical board had gone far enough. Indeed, she didn't even think they had to go that far. "Whisper Pump.", she said. To my blank look, she explained that the Whisper Pump is a wearable bra/pump contraption that you can wear while you work. It takes about 5 minutes to rig up, and pumps while you work. So it appears that Dr. Currier might not need any extra time at all in order to take the test and also pump.
I gotta tell ya, it feels a little uncomfortable arguing against someone getting an accommodation they say they need, especially when I have not walked in that person's shoes. But this one doesn't seem to pass the sniff test, and it would appear to me that Dr. Currier would spend her limited time better studying for her exam, rather than talking to her lawyer.