How can we talk about workplace equality when we still punish women for getting pregnant?

A pregnant business woman giving a presentation
A pregnant business woman giving a presentation
Image: PeopleImages via GettyImages
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I recently met a female entrepreneur who found out she was pregnant in the middle of raising her seed round. As soon as she reached 12 weeks, and before anyone had wired money, she told all the investors about her impending motherhood. Some investors dropped out, she told me, and she raised less money than she intended. But she told this story with optimism, because “quite a few” investors had been surprisingly supportive of a pregnant woman.

I was disappointed—that she had to deal with investors that acted that way, and because she considered losing a few investors a “good” outcome. These investors dropping out meant that she raised less (and this isn’t something that would have happened to a male founder). She shouldn’t even have to think of how her pregnancy should affect her business.

This is not an isolated story. Over and over, I have heard female friends and colleagues pass up the plum job, decide not to look for their next thing, or delay becoming an entrepreneur because a pregnancy was in their near or foreseeable future. This trend is hurting women, and hurting business.

Our culture has an unspoken rule about applying for a new job if you’re pregnant or on maternity leave: don’t do it. Many people think the same holds true if you’re trying to get pregnant or even thinking of getting pregnant.

If you’re a woman in your 30s leaning into your career but also trying to have a family, you will inevitably find yourself in conflict—with your employer, with yourself, and likely with this rule itself. And that conflict isn’t just for nine months; it’s likely for at least five years.

Let’s do the math. A 32-year-old woman might spend:

  • Six months thinking about getting pregnant
  • Six months trying to get pregnant
  • Nine months pregnant
  • Six months on maternity leave

That alone is around 27 months—more than two years. If a woman decides to have another child, double that time, and it’s almost five years. If a woman has two children when she is between the ages of 32 and 37, out of that five-year-period, she might have only about a six-month window in which she might feel comfortable changing jobs or starting a company, according to the current “rules.”

We assume that women will be the primary caretakers of their children, so we deny them business opportunities. In fact, women are penalized even if they aren’t the primary caretaker—male investors have told me they sometimes have a lingering concern that a female founder is responsible for most of the childcare and is somehow less dedicated to her job. What about men with young children? Or men training for ironman triathlons (which can require up to 50 hours per month of training)? We’re too hung up on the pregnancy penalty, and we are missing out on female potential.

The conflict is even more acute for entrepreneurs, who, especially when they’re just starting out, might not have a company on solid-enough financial footing to take time away. They face the challenge of trying to fundraise and launch products while managing baby bumps, births, and breastfeeding.

Having a child has a lasting effect on a woman’s career. One 2018 study conducted in Denmark (which has more generous childcare policies than the US) found that the earnings of a woman who has a child dips 20% compared to women who do not have children, and that the gap persists for the remainder of her professional life.

Men, of course, face no such penalties (in fact, fatherhood often helps men at work). Men catapult forward while the women are paralyzed.

This is particularly acute among startup founders. In 2018, female founders earned just 2.2% of VC funding. It’s hard to say exactly why this number is so low, and little data exists on the effect of pregnancy on female entrepreneurs in particular (though pregnancy discrimination is verifiably rampant in almost every other industry). But in recent years, a growing number of female founders have been open about the kinds of things potential investors say to them—things like, “You’ve clearly got what founders are made of, but I hope you’re not planning to get pregnant anytime soon,” as one reportedly told Melissa Hanna, the CEO of a maternity healthcare company—and whether or not they chose to disclose their pregnancies as they were fundraising.

A recent survey, conducted by my VC firm, corroborates this. Jane VC surveyed over 500 early stage founders and found that the amount of capital male entrepreneurs raised spiked after age 30 and remained high until age 45. For female entrepreneurs, the amount of capital raised rose steadily until her late 30s and peaked by age 45. It’s hard not to see the connection to the pregnancy penalty—the years in which men most dramatically out-earned women (the early 30s) are right around the average age that college-educated women have their first child.

I understand this. Friends have advised me not to job-search while pregnant. I’ve felt horribly guilty about getting pregnant weeks after starting a new job, and downplayed my pregnancy at board meetings because I didn’t want to be penalized for it. And I negotiated the sale of my company from the operating table moments before having a c-section.

Every career-focused woman I know has stories like this. Women can handle the pressures of both career and pregnancy. But the stigma of pregnancy and motherhood holds us back.

I don’t think it’s women’s responsibility to “lean in” and fix the pregnancy penalty. I think more people—men and women—need to be aware that the penalty is real, and to push forward systemic changes to combat it. There needs to be more government and company support for working parents (especially moms). Without it, women are missing out on a lot of opportunities. As an investor at Jane VC, I want to support female founders, regardless of their family plans; I also think there are opportunities to invest in startups that are filling this gap and attacking this problem.

Investors and employers, stop expecting that your female founders and employees will share their family plans with you, and that a pregnant employee or new parent should be discounted for new opportunities and projects. We wouldn’t dare hold people back who make time for ultra-marathon training, in fact, we admire it as an achievement! Why don’t we do the same for parenting?

Female founders, if you want to share your pregnancy news with your investors, at Jane VC we’ll be here to congratulate you and support you. But you don’t need to tell us. You don’t need to feel guilty. You don’t need to explain yourself. You don’t need to pass up opportunities. We have every confidence you can grow your company and raise a family, too.