Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, outlawing discrimination based on pregnancy and childbirth-related medical conditions, and 30 years later, the Americans with Disabilities Act was updated, requiring employers to provide accommodations to pregnant women with certain conditions that could qualify as disabilities. Yay, right? Unfortunately, despite attempts to put laws into place to remove discrimination, between 2010 and 2015 nearly 31,000 charges were filed and in 2017 $15 million in settlements were paid out, all for pregnancy discrimination. On top of this, the research firm National Partnership for Women and Families found that a much larger number of women were denied requests for basic accommodations, such as more frequent breaks and less physically demanding work.
A stunning report by the National Women’s Law Center, in partnership with A Better Balance, shares that 88% of first-time mothers who worked during pregnancy worked into their last two months of pregnancy, and 82% worked into their last month. As much as people love to work, the reality is that women’s income is more likely to be critical to the family. That same report highlights that working women are the primary breadwinners in more than 41% of families, and are co-breadwinners (bringing in 25%-50% of family earnings) in another 23% of families. Low-wage women workers are even more likely to bring in critical income, and more than 72% of single mothers worked in 2011. Women who are being forced out of a job (either overtly or through more subtle exclusionary practices), are being forced out at arguably the worst time of their lives, and for many, that has an impact on their entire family.
For a biting critique of pregnancy discrimination, have a look at Samantha Bee’s six minute video.
Let’s talk about ways we can be empowered to support pregnant women, regardless of our role in the company.
Creating a safe, positive environment for pregnant employees as an executive
You have budget. You have authority. You have the ultimate responsibility to ensure your employees’ well-being. There is much you can do to ensure that pregnant employees are supported.
- The law requires reasonable accommodations for breastfeeding mothers to nurse. You have the power to choose the environment they will do this in. Will it be a sad closet, or worse, a chair in a bathroom? Or will you go the route of some other companies like Deloitte, Microsoft, and others and offer a special space and extra perks? Here are some examples of some of the best nursing rooms in the U.S. One final note– offer more than one room.
- Offer child care benefits. Some very large companies can offer on-site childcare, but if you don’t have budget for that, offering the use of a service such as Care.com can signal to pregnant women that they’ll be welcomed back and supported after having their child. Also consider how and if your company offers flexible work, and if it can be adapted for pregnant women and parents.
- Have a written policy for pregnancies at work, but be prepared to go off-script if the pregnancy is complicated and unique circumstances arise. Make sure you’re in alignment with HR and all people managers. Although this particular policy example addresses breastfeeding and parents in a classroom situation, we love the way this professor approaches creating a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment.
- Model correct language. We’ll provide more guidance on this below, but as a leader, it’s critical to show that you have a good grasp of appropriate and inappropriate language about and around pregnant women.
Creating a safe, positive environment for pregnant employees as a manager
- If you work at a company with an in-person office environment, be considerate of flexible scheduling and the ability to work remotely. Work with your employee to manage how that will work. Some companies have already baked in remote work, which is great news considering 50% of the workforce already does at least part of their work remotely.
- Have a conversation with your employee about any additional accommodations they need and developing a plan, but recognize it may change. Try to put yourself in their shoes and not panic about work getting done. This holds true both for your pregnant employees, as well as for new parents. If your employee is still breastfeeding, consider how you might accommodate supporting bringing in children to the workplace environment.
- Attempt to mitigate your own biases when it comes to pregnancy. Whether you’ve gone through the experience yourself or not, every pregnancy is different, and every person is different. Don’t make assumptions.
- If you suspect that they’re pregnant, don’t ask, and don’t spy. Let them tell you when they are ready. A myriad of things can happen in the first trimester, and if you’ve miscalculated and asked someone who isn’t pregnant, you’ll likely have a hard time recovering from that comment.
- Model correct language. Recognize that you are in a position of power and authority and your words, like those of executives, matter.
Creating a safe, positive environment for pregnant employees as a colleague
- Offer help. This can be as simple as just letting your co-worker know you’re there if she needs anything, but if she doesn’t want it, don’t force it.
- If you’re in a long meeting and you notice she’s uncomfortable, offer to the group that you take a break.
- Don’t panic about your new possible temporary workload. If you do think you’ll have extra responsibilities, talk with your manager about what that might look like and devise a plan.
- Watch your language. See below for what to say and not say.
What do say and not to say to your pregnant coworker
It’s okay to say:
- Congratulations! When are you due?
- Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!
- How do you feel? (You can ask this occasionally, and preferably in private, but don’t make a big deal of it)
- You are a badass (working through pregnancy isn’t a cake walk for many and validation is awesome)
- Was it planned?
- Did you get IVF?
- Welp, I guess we’ll never see you again!
- I guess we’ll have to pick up your slack!
- I could never have a child… you’re giving up your life/career!
- Wow, you’re HUGE! Watch out, wide load, etc…
- You’re still here?
- My wife stayed home when our kids were little.
- Enjoy your vacation!
- When I was pregnant… or when my wife was pregnant… (queue the birthing horror stories.)
Now that you’ve got a sense of how best to support (and not support) pregnant employees we encourage you to put these tips into practice. Do you have a story you’d like to share of what works? We’d love to hear it and share it with others!
Photo credit: iStockPhoto