I feel for Meghan Markle, who is pregnant during her current Australia tour. A schedule requiring travel and dozens of appearances in a matter of weeks, each of them while being publicly scrutinised for signs of a growing baby bump, doesn’t sound particularly fun.
So I’m glad to hear she’s been scaling back from some of her duties. Glad might be too strong a word as I don’t care that much for the royals – but comforted, somewhat, because trying to stick with regular activities can be more challenging than the front many pregnant women put up in order to just get on with what needs to be done.
But working while pregnant is a reality facing women everywhere, many of them with no option to scale back, to take a nap, or even to shift away from activities that are physically exhausting. Women with desk jobs. Women with factory jobs. Women required to stand all day. Women in transport, in childcare, in healthcare, in retail. Women working in the home, caring for the elderly or other children.
No matter what the industry or job type, and whether it’s paid or not, women are continuing to work while pregnant.
And while these women won’t face the same levels of public scrutiny regarding their body shape and outfit choices that Markle is up against, they will face scrutiny of a different kind: Can she really keep up? Is baby brain affecting her abilities? How long will she take off work? Is she coming back? Does she really think she can return to her career? How can she only take three months off? How can she take 12 months off?
Even worse: what was she thinking, deciding to do this at this point in her career! The nerve, to take maternity leave when she knows we have X project or X deadline coming up!
One in two pregnant women will face pregnancy discrimination in Australia. Assumptions will be made about their abilities. The roles they are expecting to return to may be made redundant or altered so significantly they become impossible to successfully do later on. The opportunities for flexible or part time work may seem available, but are actually not in the context of trying to continue with the job they had prior to taking leave. Salaries will stall. Careers will hit dead ends.
Women in Australia also continue to be fired while pregnant, which is not only devastating financially, but also devastating for your career prospects when trying to return to a secure job later on with a new employer.
And there’s no escaping the financial stress that most pregnant women will face, not only regarding how they will pay rent or a mortgage while taking time out of work, but also managing childcare costs later on. For those women aware of the data, there is also the stress regarding the accumulated loss of income or drop in salary potential, a penalty that follows mothers well into retirement.
Meanwhile, pregnant women face even more dire challenges in some industries and internationally, challenges that may jeopardise their health and the health of their baby, as the New York Times details today in a disturbing report interviewing women who had miscarriages while working physically demanding jobs, despite presenting medical notes and making requests for lighter duties and shorter shifts.
(Thankfully, Australian laws appear to be a little more robust in protecting women during pregnancy, where women have a right to a different job if their current one is no longer safe while they are pregnant, or they are entitled to ‘no safe job leave’.)
Let’s remember that most women can’t ‘scale back’ from work while pregnant — whether that’s paid work, or the unpaid of work of domestic duties and caring responsibilities.
But the rest of us can do more to support them during this time. That might be as simple as asking if they are ok, or offering some advice or mentoring regarding the next stage of their careers. It can even be as easy as just not making assumptions regarding what they will or won’t do, and instead asking questions about what they plan to do (if it’s your business at all).
And to employers, as Rhonda Brighten-Hall so clearly put it recently, please stop firing pregnant women, and do more in your industry or sphere of influence to stop other employers doing it too.