According to the United States Department of Labor, women make up nearly 50% of the workforce, and 85% of working women will become mothers during their careers. The United States Census Bureau reports that women work longer while pregnant and return to work sooner than ever before after childbirth. Studies show that more needs to be done to remedy the positions of female firefighters, female front line workers or temporarily disabled pregnant women in any position with light duty, alternative assignments, disability leave or unpaid leave. If a woman is temporarily unable to perform her job due to a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, the employer or other covered entity must treat her in the same way as it treats any other temporarily disabled employee. Yet statistics show that in the last 10 years, more than 50,000 pregnancy discrimination claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices Agencies in the United States.
Pregnancy Discrimination In The Workplace
Pregnancy discrimination involves treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance and any other term or condition of employment. Pregnancy discrimination also includes perceived bias when expectant employees experience subtly hostile behaviors such as social isolation, negative stereotyping and negative or rude interpersonal treatment such as lower performance expectations, transferring the pregnant employee to less-desirable shifts or assignments or inappropriate jokes and intrusive comments.
A landmark Baylor University study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology surveyed 252 pregnant employees. The researchers measured perceived pregnancy discrimination, perceived stress, demographics and postpartum depressive symptoms. Other measurements included the babies’ health outcomes, such as gestational age, Apgar score (heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflex response and color), birth weight and visits to the doctor. The results showed that pregnancy discrimination has a negative impact on the mother’s and baby’s health. Pregnancy discrimination was linked to increased levels of postpartum depressive symptoms for mothers and lower birth weights, lower gestational ages and increased numbers of doctor visits for babies.
According to the lead researcher, Dr. Kaylee Hackney, “I think the biggest surprise from this research is that pregnancy discrimination not only negatively impacted the mother, but also negatively impacted the baby she was carrying while experiencing the discrimination. This just shows the far-reaching implications of workplace discrimination and highlights the importance of addressing it.”
Steps Expectant Workers Can Take
So what do you do if you feel appropriate accommodations during pregnancy are not made? You can’t fire your boss. You can’t take over the company and restructure it, but you can take a number of other actions.
- Find out your company’s policy on pregnancy discrimination and what your legal rights are. You might be comforted to know that a pregnant worker has legal protection, and it’s illegal for your employer to discriminate against you for being pregnant. Your company is required by law to prevent “biases about both the abilities of pregnant women and their proper roles in the workplace and the home” such as a modified work schedule or time off. But that could be cold comfort when you learn it’s up to your manager’s subjective opinions to determine what that means. If you do not sense that your issue is met with understanding and empathy, you might decide to speak directly to management.
- Arm yourself with consistent self-care. Cushion your workday to soften stress blows. Avoid putting yourself under unrealistic deadlines. Replace “deadlines” with “lifelines.” Take “health days” in addition to “sick days.” Spread job tasks over reasonable time frames. Build time cushions between meetings. Try leaving for work 10 or 15 minutes earlier so you won’t start your day in a hurry. Ease into your workday instead of catapulting into it. Unplug at the end of the day and set boundaries to protect your personal and private time.
- Don’t compromise your physical or mental health for your job. It doesn’t work for you or your employer. Instead of waiting for the company to decide what’s best for you, be assertive. No matter how dedicated you are, evaluate your job and overall life satisfaction to decide what’s reasonable during your pregnancy. Decide how far you’re willing to go to meet company demands. Be prepared to put your foot down if you believe your employer oversteps those bounds. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that management can’t offer support if they don’t know you need it. Bosses are human, too, and competent employers know your well-being improves your job performance, makes their jobs easier and makes them look good.
Steps Managers Can Take
Given the landmark Baylor University study found that pregnancy discrimination led to adverse health outcomes through increased stress, managers are in a unique position to provide the support that pregnant employees need to reduce stress. Here are some steps managers might take:
- Establish a workplace culture where discrimination does not take place
- Provide flexible schedules to accommodate prenatal appointments and/or a medical condition related to the pregnancy
- Keep information channels open and the employee in the loop, specifically with regards to work-family benefits and expectations leading up to leave/returning from leave
- Help to plan maternity leave arrangements
- Normalize breastfeeding in the workplace
- Keep dialogue open with an employee about the kind of support she might need during her pregnancy
- Offer training sessions and education about the legal rights of pregnant women as stated in the PDA and make sure these rights are clearly stated in the company handbook
- Train managers to be more family supportive and less biased against expectant mothers
A Final Word
If you’re a leader of an organization, it’s in your company’s best interest to address your legal responsibilities to expectant workers. If allowed to continue, the toxicity and dissatisfaction will hurt the company’s bottom line. Workplace performance will drop, and the organization’s integrity will be compromised. Minimizing, covering up or turning your head the other way, in effect, creates a toxic culture for all employees. Eventually, the company will become a revolving door for workers, and it will be more difficult to attract and retain talented employees who can always find a mentally healthier and more supportive work environment that makes accommodations for expectant women workers.
Grossman, J. L. & Thomas, G. L. (2009). Making Pregnancy Work: Overcoming the Pregnancy Discrimination Act’s Capacity-BasedModel. Yale Journal of Law & Feminism. 15. Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/faculty_scholarship/101
Hackney, K. J. et, al (2020). Examining the effects of perceived pregnancy discrimination on mother and baby health. Journal of Applied Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/apl0000788