Pregnant workers want to be treated as they were before pregnancy, study finds
April 20, 2015
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They see themselves as islands of normality amidst
others' changed perceptions
Discrimination against pregnant workers has been much in the
news lately, thanks in part to a greatly anticipated Supreme Court
decision in March that seemed to split the difference between the
rights of the female plaintiff and her corporate
employer. With public discussion focused largely on how much
accommodation pregnant employees are due, one might assume
entitlement to be among these women's top priorities.
Yet, a major new paper on workplace pregnancy suggests closer to
the opposite to be the case. The study does not seek to pass
judgment on legal aspects of this issue or how it should play out
in particular cases. At the same time, its surveys of hundreds of
pregnant workers and in-depth interviews with more than two dozen
others reveal a wholesale rejection of special treatment.
Thus, on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree)
pregnant employees averaged 4.23 in response to "I try not to ask
for accommodation"; 4.25 on "I try to get more done at work"; and
4.30 on "I want others to know that who I am at work is the same as
before the pregnancy." And the general approach embodied by those
attitudes pays off in lowered burnout, lessened feelings of being
discriminated against, and increased likelihood of returning to
work postpartum, the study finds.
In the words of the paper, published in
the Academy of Management Journal, its findings "refute many of the
stereotypes associated with pregnant workers. In all four [of the
study's] samples pregnant women desired to be valued and to be seen
as the same people they were before pregnancy. In some cases, they
worked harder in order to maintain that image. The stereotype that
pregnant women are not serious or committed workers did not apply
to the women in our studies."
Before embarking on the research, the authors write, they tended
"to believe that the monumental change of becoming pregnant would
drive women's concerns regarding work. We discovered instead that
most women claimed that their perceptions of themselves had not
changed substantially during pregnancy -- rather...they tended to
portray themselves as the eye in the center of a storm -- an island
of relative normality in the midst of their bosses', coworkers' and
clients' changing perceptions...As a result, many women perceived
their pregnancies as a potential threat to their professional
images, and, at times, even to their very jobs. Many women
expressed a determination to counter these perceptions."
Adds a co-author of the study, Laura M. Little of the University
of Georgia's Terry College of Business , "What we found, in an
overwhelming way, was that the primary concerns were outwardly
focused on their professional image and how they would be viewed at
work. We were surprised at this -- surprised not that it was a
concern but that it was the overriding
Collaborating with Prof. Little on the study were Virginia Smith
Major of The Connection, Inc., Amanda S. Hinojosa of the University
of Houston - Clear Lake, and Debra L. Nelson of Oklahoma State
They find that workers respond to overriding concern about
their professional image in two principal ways -- by an
action-oriented approach that the authors call "image maintenance"
and by an avoidance strategy that they call "decategorization."
The former most commonly entails maintaining the same pace of work,
including the hours and level of output, that they managed before
pregnancy and declining to ask supervisors or coworkers for special
accommodations. In some cases it may even
involve outdoing their prior performance
("going the extra mile," as the study puts it) or choosing to ask
for shorter maternity leaves than they are entitled to take.
The avoidance strategy, decategorization, entails hiding the
pregnancy, even continuing to do so beyond the first trimester, by
wearing clothes that minimize the appearance of bellies or
lying about such physical symptoms as nausea or even refusing to
acknowledge the pregnancy when asked. A less emphatic version of
this strategy is downplaying pregnancy by such means as avoiding
discussion of it or steering the conversation away from it.
While the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, they are
quite distinct, and interviews did not suggest that job status
influences the use of one over the other. Where the two
approaches are critically different is in their effect on three
major career aspects probed by the study - (1) perceived
discrimination, (2) burnout, and (3) likelihood of returning to
work postpartum. While decategorization fails to have a significant
effect on any of these, the action-oriented strategy of image
maintenance affects all three, reducing burnout and the sense of
being discriminated against and increasing the likelihood of
returning to work.
Not only did pregnant workers themselves benefit from image
maintenance, the authors observe but "organizations also benefited
because these behaviors increased the likelihood of these women
returning to work." Meanwhile, "the good news for women who engage
in avoidance strategies is that, counter to our hypotheses,
decategorization did not worsen workplace outcomes. The bad news is
that it also did not improve these outcomes."
The study builds on in-depth interviews averaging 90 minutes
that Dr. Major conducted with 35 pregnant workers in a wide variety
of jobs, low status and high status alike. Twenty-eight, or 80%,
indicated that their professional image was a major concern of
their pregnancy and spelled out the reasons for this concern and
their approaches to dealing with it. The four co-authors then
proceeded to put flesh on the bare bones of the concepts that
emerged from these interviews through a series of surveys with
pregnant employees. A survey of 199, recruited through pregnancy
blogs, enabled the researchers to develop scales to gauge the
workers' motives and strategies; a second survey of 174 tested the
validity of measures; and a final two-stage survey of 200 assessed
the effect of the women's strategies on burnout, perceived
discrimination, and likelihood of returning to work.
While the study's findings suggest large-scale success among
working women in meeting the challenges of pregnancy, the authors
reject any notion that the overall situation is satisfactory.
Comments Prof. Little: "Women may be holding their own, but the
fact that 80% of our interviewees saw a threat to their
professional identity in their workplaces suggests that companies
have a way to go in doing right by pregnant workers."
Further, the authors note that, notwithstanding the importance
of the measures of success employed in the study, they are not
comprehensive. "Women who devote a considerable time to the
successful management of their professional images may do so at the
expense of their personal lives. In addition, going the extra mile
may have adverse health outcomes for the pregnant woman or the
baby....A few interviewees wondered if they had pushed themselves
too hard in their efforts to prove themselves to supervisors and
others. One respondent was put on bed rest for hypertension, and
another, who had a high-risk pregnancy, chose not to follow her
doctor's orders to reduce her hours at work."
The researchers conclude with a reminder and brief counsel.
Pregnant workers, they reiterate, "spoke passionately of the
importance they placed on maintaining their images, doing a good
job, and being dependable and professional... The key question for
employers and organizations should not be whether women's
priorities will shift during pregnancy but how best to respond to
women's concerns about others' changing views."
The paper, "Professional Image Maintenance: How Women Navigate Pregnancy in the Workplace," is in the February/March issue of
the Academy of Management
Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is
published every other month by the Academy, which, with about
18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the
world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's
other publications are Academy of Management Review,
Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management
Learning and Education, Academy of Management
Annals, and Academy of Management