When you are pregnant, employers, colleagues and clients may start making judgments about your ability to work ― even today in the supposedly enlightened year of 2019. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s story of being “shown the door” at a teaching job in 1971 for being visibly pregnant has prompted a flood of people to come forward with their own stories of discrimination.
Everyday indignities and harmful “help” are still happening to pregnant workers even though pregnancy discrimination has been illegal in the U.S. since 1978. Take the story of June – one of several people HuffPost agreed to identify by first name only – who gave birth this April.
After June disclosed her pregnancy to the mortgage software company where she worked, her manager told her colleagues to be mindful of her scheduling needs. It might have seemed kindly meant, but it didn’t play out that way. As her pregnancy advanced, June received a “lackluster” performance review for not taking enough initiative, and she said her manager “complained to me that I was spending ‘too much time walking around’ and specifically commented that I was getting water and going to the bathroom too much.”
June ended up being laid off in a company restructuring after she gave birth. She described working for that manager as the worst part of being pregnant.
Pregnant workers have a right to seek accommodations.
Workers who are expecting have legal protections. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 bans firing or demoting people because they are pregnant and requires that pregnant individuals be treated the same as other employees with a similar ability or inability to work.
The 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act also require employers to give reasonable accommodations to employees with a pregnancy-related impairment that constitutes a disability. To go back to June’s case, needing to use the restroom more often is one of the typical pregnancy-related symptoms that employers should be reasonably accommodating.
But those accommodations don’t always happen, and pregnancy discrimination is still thriving. Between 2010 and 2015, about 31,000 claims of pregnancy discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, according to a report from the nonprofit National Partnership for Women and Families.
But offers of help can actually be debilitating.
Beyond blatant acts of discrimination, there are the insidious comments that question the competence of a worker who is pregnant.
Sandy, a senior account manager in advertising who gave birth in March, said that while she did not face explicit discrimination, repeated remarks from her male colleagues and superiors implicitly questioned her professional worth. These included statements like “I know you’ll have other things to worry about, and your head won’t be in the game as it is now.”
“It obviously doesn’t feel good,” Sandy said.
Later, when she needed to pick up her baby but said she’d be available online, Sandy recalled one of her male superiors responding with “What else is new?”
Sometimes the questions asking about your health or capabilities can be made under the guise of offering help, but that doesn’t make them helpful.
June said her manager “constantly asked if I was OK.” Emily Cain said she had an overall positive experience with being pregnant on the job this year, but the client relations professional did note one colleague who took it upon themselves to question her ability to travel at one point. What that effectively did was suggest Cain couldn’t do her job while pregnant.
Research has found that receiving too much help may actually make pregnant women more likely to want to quit their jobs nine months after childbirth. Management organization researcher Judy Clair and others tracked 120 working pregnant women through weekly surveys on their work experiences and a final report on how the support they got during pregnancy shaped their career ambitions nine months after the baby was born.
According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, the researchers found that women were appreciative of practical help like the opportunity to leave early for doctor’s appointments. Cain had a similar experience: Her high-risk pregnancy led to “three-plus” doctor’s appointments a week at one point, which was taken in stride by her company. “It definitely made me feel valued as an employee and as a colleague,” Cain said. “There was no guilt. There was nobody questioning if I was going to miss this meeting or if I was going to get this other thing done … which isn’t always the case.”
And then there’s the less helpful help. Women in the survey said they felt less capable when the help seemed to be aimed at protecting them, such as being denied a more challenging assignment because of the pressure or long hours.
When a colleague offers this kind of help, it can suggest they think the pregnant worker is not fully capable, and the worker may internalize the other person’s doubt as their own. “These worries and challenges set women up for a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the researchers wrote. “When help is received, women take this as a sign that they can’t keep up any longer.”
If colleagues and bosses want to help pregnant workers, the researchers suggested they should offer help when asked and not assume it’s needed. “Help will be most welcome when it’s offered in response to someone’s request, is negotiated with her, and encourages autonomy instead of dependency,” they wrote.
“Never pre-judge a situation” is Cain’s advice. “Just because a woman decides to have a baby, it doesn’t mean that she is any less of a worker, or her work ethic has changed. You are fundamentally dealing with the same person.”
Pregnancy is still seen as a deviation from the ideal worker.
The boss handling pregnancy news poorly is a concern for many workers capable of getting pregnant. In a 2018 survey of 2,100 employed professionals, childcare provider Bright Horizons found that 21% would be worried about telling their boss they were expecting — a figure that had doubled from the 2014 survey. This fear is backed by research finding that mothers can be perceived as less capable and committed on a job. Being a visibly pregnant CEO on a magazine cover is still groundbreaking, after all.
Even if you have no plans to get pregnant, studies show that women face a motherhood penalty based on employers’ expectations that you will one day decide to bear children. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) shared that in her early 20s she was told that if she got engaged, “don’t wear the ring to interviews to better my odds.”
For women, showing that you have any family commitment outside your job can be perceived as a mark against your ability to do the job. Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, calls this “family responsibility” discrimination.
Pregnancy discrimination keeps happening, Williams said, because “we still define the ideal worker as someone who starts to work in early adulthood, and works full-time, full-force for 40 years straight, taking no time off for childbirth, child-rearing or any other caregiving responsibilities.”
“People think they’re just insisting on excellent employee behavior,” Williams said. In truth, “defining the ideal worker in that way is defining workplace ideals around someone with a man’s body.”
If you want to expand your mind beyond the traditionally narrow assumptions of what pregnant workers can or cannot do, take a look at the photos of pregnant workers in the “Showing: Pregnancy in the Workplace” project.
You’ll see pregnant women working outdoors, in classrooms and behind cash registers. You’ll see the physical toll of pregnancy through the image of a book designer’s swollen ankles or the story of a physician hiding nausea from her patients. You’ll also see that pregnancy is not a limitation, but another career transition. As Jazzercise instructor Alicia says, her job represented the time “each day that I didn’t think about being sick. That’s what made me feel good. Pregnancy is not a deal breaker.”
The subjects in this photo series were not pregnant people posing for a bump pic ― they were workers doing their jobs. And that’s a matter-of-fact attitude that should be more common.