A chair. Water. Extra bathroom breaks. These aren’t extraordinary workplace requests, but for pregnant women on the job, they can be perceived as symbolic of special treatment (and not in a good way).
Pregnant workers routinely find themselves uncomfortably situated between a proverbial rock and a hard place: How can they request modifications while not seeming weak, or being treated differently, for doing so?
Whether at work or at home, the physical demands of pregnancy do require changes in one’s daily routines: Pregnant women need extra hydration and food, routinely have to visit the bathroom (you would too if you had a ten pound weight squishing your bladder) and may want to sit down more often than their non-pregnant counterparts. Biological necessities, however, should not be used to stereotype: pregnant women are not weak, so why are they still systematically discriminated against?
One word: perception.
Ask anyone who’s been simultaneously pregnant and employed, and chances are good they’ll tell you they not only rejected special treatment, they worked even harder to prove their value to the team.
This unfortunate reality was highlighted by a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, which concluded that pregnant women are so concerned about managing their professional images that they make extra efforts to maintain—or even outperform—their previous pace. In some cases, pregnant women even asked for less time off for maternity or attempted to hide their pregnancies beyond the first trimester.
All this despite the fact that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 was designed to protect pregnant women from discrimination during the hiring process. Thirteen states explicitly protect pregnant women from facing repercussions if they need special accommodations while working, and advocates continue to push for federal protections through the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.
Like so many women in the workplace, I’m no stranger to these types of anxieties. I interviewed for a job while 14 weeks pregnant with my first child in 2011. I disclosed my status in good faith to my would-be manager, who immediately proceeded to ask how I’d ever manage to juggle both my pregnancy and motherhood while working. I confidently assured her I could do both (I was growing a baby in my uterus, not my brain, after all) and politely reminded her that her line of questioning was legally dubious, at best. And this job was with a women’s rights legal advocacy organization.
I was shocked. If a female executive at an organization that prided itself on protecting and promoting women’s rights in the workplace could verbalize such stereotyped nonsense, what hope did I (or other pregnant women) have?
Although ultimately I did not get that job, the experience ended up being a blessing as it pushed me to pursue freelance writing and communications consultancy work, something I continue to enjoy today.
For years, I refused to let that negative experience affect my self-confidence. However, while interviewing—while pregnant with my second child—for a freelancing project recently, the old anxieties resurfaced. I was nervous that my honesty might hurt my chance at landing the contract. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded; I’ve been happily working on that project for a few months now.
Just as we should be openly discussing matters of income inequality, we should call out maternal profiling and pregnancy discrimination when we see it. The bottom line? A woman’s womb occupancy has no bearing on her professional capabilities—and pregnant women shouldn’t have to work overtime to prove these outdated stereotypes wrong. We certainly don’t see ourselves that way, so why should employers?