The glass-shattering power of seeing pregnant women in the workplace

Pregnant businesswoman working in office
Pregnant businesswoman working in office
Image: Getty Images / Robert Daly
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On Wednesday (Sept. 18), The Wing founder Audrey Gelman added another accolade to her buzzy career: She became the first visibly pregnant CEO to appear on the cover of a business magazine. She graced the cover of Inc.’s Female Founder issue, cradling her very large baby bump.

As someone who built her career on championing professional women, Gelman was a natural choice to break this boundary. When Gelman first opened the doors to The Wing in 2016, she had no idea that her original plan of creating a space for women to freshen up would transform into a modern, women-focused social club. Three years later, and with $118 million in funding, the co-working space has eight locations across the US and plans to expand internationally in 2020.

In an interview on The Today Show, Gelman explains why it’s critical to have images of women thriving at work while balancing motherhood. “You can’t be what you can’t see, so I think it’s so important for women to see that it’s possible to run a fast-growing business and also to start a family,” the 32-year-old CEO says.

Even in 2019, a pregnancy while you have a job can be a liability. According to the Modern Family Index, in 2018, two times as many US women were scared to tell their boss they were pregnant, compared to five years prior. These working moms believed the news could keep them from advancing as quickly as their childless peers.

Furthermore, 42% of childless working women fear having a child will stunt their career growth. Women already make less money than their male counterparts, but for women who become mothers, the gap is greater. According to a 2018 study by the National Women’s Law Center, mothers suffer from $16,000 a year in lost wages and get paid 71 cents for every dollar men make.

CEOs and entrepreneurs bear even more of a burden for pregnancy. While it’s hard to gather hard numbers on how many female start-up founders have lost funding opportunities due to pregnancy, anecdotes reveal the adversity that pregnant entrepreneurs face. Stories of investors dropping out from a seed round after finding out a founder has pregnancy plans, and the unspoken rule that women shouldn’t start their own business if pregnancy is a possibility, demonstrates that women who are contemplating motherhood are afraid to hold leadership roles. In 2018, female founders only earned 2.2% of total VC funding. Proof of why that number is so low doesn’t exist, but motherhood probably plays into the gap.

The penalties don’t disappear once women become mothers. Employers stigmatize working moms, assuming that they are distracted and less capable of doing work, which contributes to the wage gap and holds women back from advancing in their careers. Men, on the other hand, benefit professionally when they become fathers. According to The New York Times, women receive a 4% pay cut for each child they have, while fathers gain a 6% pay increase.

Of course, women can be mothers and excellent employees or entrepreneurs. Gelman is just one of the many women who successfully leads a business while pregnant or being a mother. In fact, working mothers are more productive (pdf) as a group than women without children. In a society where working mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40% of households, Gelman’s Inc. cover creates visibility for pregnant women and can start to show companies everywhere that it’s normal and desirable to hire them.