How to Talk About Your Pregnancy at Work
April 21, 2015
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Research suggests that being open about pregnancy
at work could be better for your career than covering it up.
The workplace isn't always a friendly place for pregnant women.
(Just ask the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided a case last
month that could make it easier for some women to sue their employers for
pregnancy discrimination.) Yet working women inclined to conceal
a pregnancy from prying coworkers may be better off opening up and
carrying on, according to a new study.
In a paper that appeared in
the spring issue of The
Academy of Management Journal, researchers
from the University of Georgia, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Oklahoma
State University, and the Connection, a nonprofit, looked at three studies based
on surveys of hundreds of pregnant workers. They and found that women
usually try to keep up their professional image in one of two ways.
Some hid their pregnancies as long as they could beyond the first trimester,
wearing baggy clothes to hide a growing baby bump, masking morning
sickness, or shrugging off questions about being pregnant.
Others were open about their situation but tried hard
to maintain the status quo, focusing on working the same number
of hours as before.
found that women who were stoic but upfront about their
pregnancies were more likely to return to work after giving
birth—and less likely to feel discriminated against or suffer
burnout. Those who kept it under wraps
didn't experience the benefits.
When women revealed
pregnancy earlier and kept up with work, "it had positive
effects on so many levels—both for the individual [and] for the
organization," says Virginia Smith Major, a co-author of the paper and
director of learning and organizational development at the Connection, a social
services nonprofit. While the researchers weren't sure why women who
engaged in what they called "image-maintenance" strategies seemed to
reap benefits at work, it could be, Major says, that "those more proactive
strategies gave women more of a sense of control over their professional
lives." The research comes at an
interesting time. Working women and advocates alike have criticized companies for
either openly discriminating against pregnant employees or forcing their
hand with restrictive policies. As my colleague Clare Suddath's reporting has shown, women
have plenty of incentives to hide pregnancy: Many have been forced into
unpaid leave, let go, or snubbed while job-hunting, despite U.S. laws
forbidding firing or demoting employees simply because they're
pregnant. "Women might worry their coworkers will think they're not
going to return to work, or that their pregnancy is going to make them more
emotional," Major says.
Although the researchers
found benefits in a strategy that involved being open at work about
pregnancy, the rewards tended to come after women made efforts to
maintain their workloads and didn't ask for special accommodations—not
cases in which women faced complications that required them to take more time
off. The fact that a large share of women still fear how pregnancy might derail
their careers shows that "companies have a way to go in doing right by
pregnant workers," says Laura Little, a professor at the University of
Georgia and a co-author of the paper.
The research by Smith and
her colleagues suggests that the way women choose to respond to—or cover
up—pregnancy can have a tangible effect on their health. The best way
to be pregnant at work might be to flaunt it—as long as you don't dare ask
for a rest.