Disclosing a pregnancy at work has long been—for lack of a better word—uncomfortable. Too often, unsolicited advice from colleagues and assumptions about one’s career trajectory follow hot on the heels of an announcement.
In many ways, remote work, which increased for many during the pandemic, has served as an antidote to that. Suddenly parents-to-be found they could keep pregnancies private for as long as they wished. And many did just that.
The logic behind waiting to tell (beyond personal privacy, of course) includes postponing the indignities of things like “benevolent sexism”—when colleagues do unasked for things like reducing your workload assuming you’ll want to do less—as well as outright retaliation and discrimination.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) expressly forbids employers with 15 or more employees from “discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, says Sarah Damaske, an associate professor of sociology and labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University.
While American mothers are legally required to have their job or an equivalent one waiting for them upon return from leave, Damaske’s research finds many women lose their jobs as a direct result of announcing a pregnancy, which is illegal. And many moms suspect a job loss due to something like a reorganization is actually related to having a baby, which is also illegal, but harder to prove.
In light of this, keeping a pregnancy quiet longer (if you work remotely and are able to) might seem like a good idea. After all, you don’t have to disclose your pregnancy at work unless you’re seeking an accommodation. But if you don’t inform your company you are pregnant you may miss out on the protections afforded by the PDA, says Lauren Smith Brody, a workplace consultant and the founder of The Fifth Trimester.
Daphne Delvaux, an employment lawyer, founder of The Mamattorney, and a co-founder of The Chamber of Mothers, agrees that not announcing can be counterproductive. As an example: In the first trimester, things like nausea and exhaustion can make it hard to keep up. If you’re late to meetings, or missing work, a manager could fire you if they didn’t know you were pregnant. By pushing through the first trimester without telling your employer, you forfeit those very rights that would protect your job, Delvaux explains.
In short: “If you under-perform due to pregnancy symptoms but your employer doesn’t know you are pregnant, you can be legally terminated,” says Delvaux.
But with one in five working moms report experiencing pregnancy discrimination, and one in four considering leaving a job out of fear of discrimination, announcing a pregnancy becomes “a real risk-benefit analysis for the employee,” says Brody. The question is usually: Am I better off having more time to plan or having fewer months of potentially being discriminated against?
Brody recommends having as much time as possible to plan your leave, if you’re able to take one. “When you’re the one leading the conversation, you tend to have an advantage,” she says. You might, for example, be able to take a hard look at your job description and drop some of the more menial tasks no one knows you’ve been doing.
The earlier you announce, the more time you have to negotiate benefits, learn what you may qualify for, and understand policies and legal protections, Brody adds.
If you wait to give notice of pregnancy, says Delvaux, you are also shortening the window to plan for your upcoming absence. Employers need time to account for your leave and reshuffle staff or projects. If you are not giving them enough time to prepare for your absence, this may breed resentment which may escalate into retaliation when you return from leave.
On the other hand, delayed pregnancy announcements are the result of increased autonomy in family planning decisions, and that is definitely a benefit. “Insofar as women feel like they have control over what they’re sharing about their bodies and their family decisions, I think that’s a very good thing,” says Damaske. “Men don’t have to share news about impending family decisions with their colleagues.”
“I think that we do a very nice job of celebrating motherhood on Mother’s Day and not so great of a job of celebrating the rest of the time,” Damaske says.
And the onus shouldn’t be on the moms to announce or not announce their pregnancies at certain points, she notes. It’s on employers and governments to lay a foundation of support for everyone, to help shift cultural views and remove the fear, anxiety, and worry that too many people feel.