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What my wife and I learned about telling the boss you’re pregnant

A woman pushes a baby stroller in a park
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
  • Peter Vanham
By Peter Vanham

Head of the international media council and chairman’s communications, World Economic Forum

Published Last updated

Starting a family is exciting, but it’s also a jump into the deep end. As “young urban professionals,” my wife and I for the first years of our marriage weren’t in a hurry to have children. We were both happily focused on our careers. Seemingly everyone around us was just as preoccupied with finding success and getting ahead.

So when we finally did get pregnant, it was a blessing, but also a source of professional anxiety, especially for my wife. Valeria had been working in her new job at the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis for less than a year. She was afraid of telling her boss she’d soon be off for several months, just as her team was expanding into new markets and launching new products.

“What if they’re disappointed that I’m leaving the team just as we’re headed into a really busy period,” she wondered. “Will they wish they had hired someone else?” She was worried, too, about being “mommy-tracked.” And I was worried for her—while also very conscious of the fact that I had no such fears about my own career.

A surprising reaction from the boss

As it turned out, we had no need to worry. When Valeria had the video call to tell her boss (this presumably would have been an in-person meeting were it not for the pandemic), the news was welcomed with great enthusiasm. “I’m so happy for you,” Valeria’s manager said, before offering some hard-won wisdom about being a working parent. Valeria’s boss, to be clear, is a woman and a mother herself.

That initial warm reaction was a major relief for my wife. A month later, any remaining doubts about what her dual role as future caregiver and career woman would mean for her career were fully erased. “I’ve put you up for a promotion,” Valeria’s boss told her. “I know you’ve been with us for less than a year, but as everyone will attest, you’ve already proven to be a great asset for us.”

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Valeria’s promotion was announced to the full team in her sixth month of pregnancy; her raise will kick in during her maternity leave. It’s not hard to guess she was thrilled. She felt validated, of course, for the hard work she already had put in at the company. She was assured that she got the promotion on merit, that it would have occurred either way.

But obviously, there also was a sense that this company really was the right place for her to build her career. The loyalty she already felt to the company got a major boost. If this team was by our side in one of the most crucial junctures in our lives, she felt, of course she would want to pay that back by being there for the company in the years to come.

The lessons for employees who are expecting—and for employers everywhere

The moral of the story, I think, is that it pays for companies to do the right thing and support the women who work for them. There might have been a short-term gain for the company had it not given my wife a raise, or even side-tracked a mother-to-be. But the long-term gains from reaffirming a commitment to an employee are no doubt much greater.

To people outside Novartis, my wife is now an even greater “net promoter” for the company than she was before. Internally, she is a hyper-motivated employee. In an era of nonstop talk about the “war for talent” and the difficulties of attracting millennial and Gen Z employees in the wake of the “Great Resignation,” that has got to count for something.

There are also a few broader lessons to learn from this story as well.

First, it undoubtedly helped that at Novartis, almost half the executives are women. Both my wife’s boss and her division president are women. Having more people in leadership that have gone through a similar life and work experience no doubt helps in creating a corporate culture that celebrates working mothers. There should be more women in leadership elsewhere too, especially in companies where a majority of the workers are women.

Second, it takes more than a blanket commitment to gender parity to actually achieve it. As we experienced since getting pregnant, the differences in career opportunities between men and women really kick in once you start a family. I’ve tried to attend as many doctor’s appointments and classes as possible, but even now the burden of parenthood already weighs heavier on my wife.

It led me to see the uncomfortable truth that in many places, societal structures simply aren’t prepared for gender parity in child care. That in turn affects the career prospects of working parents. So if companies want to see more women advance to leadership roles, they have to put in place proactive policies themselves, that go above and beyond the provisions of government or society at large.

And finally, where did this leave me as father-to-be? My experience of our pregnancy was much less demanding, of course. Physically, I didn’t undergo any of the changes and challenges my wife did. But also on the job, I had less to “fear.” As a future father at a Swiss employer, I only legally have the right to two weeks of paternity leave anyway. I thus had no qualms to share the exciting news at work.

Isn’t it about time, though, that companies and governments treat fathers and mothers in the same way at work and in society, including for parental leave? I say this selfishly, of course, as I would really like to build a bond with our soon-to-be-born daughter. Two weeks is scarcely enough to create that early childhood bond which is so crucial.

Yet I also say this as I realize how unfair the current set-up is, where mothers-to-be have to get anxious about telling their managers, fearing retaliation for leaving their jobs for months on end, or worrying if their temporary replacement may become permanent. As a father-to-be, I felt none of that. That’s unfair from a gender parity perspective, and it sets the tone for the rest of our careers.

The fatherhood premium and the motherhood penalty

Already, we have friends where the new mothers drop their careers or take a step back when a child is born, because of how social and financial incentives are still set up in many societies and companies. And I see how the fathers are getting ahead in their careers, as they get a sort of “fatherhood premium” instead of the “motherhood penalty” that their spouses often experience.

For the benefit of families and society at large, we should change these persistent practices. Give all parents an equal leave, and don’t hold back in giving hardworking mothers-to-be an extra sign of appreciation. It may cost some more money, and it may give fathers-to-be something extra to worry about. But the payoff is worth it, both for families and for employers.

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