Telling your boss you’re pregnant can be a terrifying experience. It’s similar to that feeling you get when resigning from one job to accept something with a competitor, like you’ve somehow let the team down (you haven’t).
I’ve heard many stories of women fearing the reaction: everything from being blamed for not being able to outline their ovulation calendar to indicate a future arrival, to having colleagues resent them and their bump for disrupting their long-term holiday plans.
But telling your boss you’re pregnant – which no woman should ever have to feel guilty about – could merely be the first step on a long road of discrimination those who have children can expect to face. The chances are you’re likely to experience discrimination either during your pregnancy, while on parental leave or once you’ve returned to work, with the Australian Human Rights Commission releasing research this week that finds one in two women (49%) experiencing such discrimination.
It starts during pregnancy, when 27% of the 2000 mothers surveyed reported feeling discriminated against, continues while requesting or on parental leave (32%) and really hurts when new mums return to work with 35% feeling discrimination at this time.
The discrimination can be wide-ranging and include everything from subtle negative comments to reductions in pay, missed training, development and promotion opportunities and outright dismissal.
Prue Gilbert, who runs a leadership diversity consultancy, says the problem is so prevalent she actually trains women who’re returning to work after having a child to anticipate and prepare to defend themselves against discrimination.
She told me that while she’s “horrified” by the fact women should ever feel they have to learn ways to deal with such discrimination, it’s a simple fact of the conservative business environment she believes we’re in. “If you can address discrimination in the moment then you’re more likely to walk out the room with your dignity intact and preserved.”
And while you’d think we might be more aware of the consequences of such discrimination, Gilbert believes it’s on the increase. “One reason for this is that there’s a greater fear around talking about discrimination. People don’t know what they can and can’t say. They skirt around the edges. We’re really still living in the dark ages when it comes to dealing with pregnancy at work.”
Meanwhile, there’s the pregnancy discrimination at work we do hear about and the discrimination we don’t – some women, unaware of what constitutes discrimination may believe it’s fair to miss out on a pay rise, promotion of training opportunities due to their pregnancy. They may later believe they have to over-deliver while working part time in order to compensate for the ‘opportunity’ they’ve been given to better juggle work with their new parenting duties. It’s easy to feel like you’ve somehow ‘inconvenienced’ your employer and your colleagues by taking parental leave or requiring more flexible work options once you return.
What’s particularly disturbing is that such discrimination is happening to women at what’s one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives – while they’re feeling exhausted, dealing with the challenges associated with being a new mum and adjusting to new financial circumstances. Such vulnerability can leave you picking the battles (eg, getting the toddler to sleep rather than telling the colleague with the snarky comments to shut up) and doing whatever you can to keep your employer onside, knowing just how challenging it is to find a new job that can fit with your caring responsibilities.
Recently, I wrote about my own experiences on parental leave and why I believe we should think of it as a ‘maternity transition’ rather than leave, given the word leave implies you’ll be returning to some semblance of your previous life. I didn’t realise such a transition should also involve preparing to confront potential discrimination at work.
It’s organisations and their leaders that should be ‘anticipating’ the pregnancy-related discrimination that could affect new parents and dealing with it head-on. If organisations are serious about women’s workforce participation, then they need to acknowledge more than half of those women will have a child at some point – and despite the perceived ‘inconvenience’ such women and their bumps will cause, they will need support during their pregnancy, leave and return to work.
As Gilbert says, companies should consider more than the bottom line while pushing the ‘business case’ for gender diversity. “Organisations need to remember they are part of the economic fabric of society. If the community is prospering, then they will be more likely to do so.”