I’ve been pregnant twice in the past four years. For the first pregnancy, the company didn’t have an established leave and they created one for me. Months after returning from leave, I was promoted to a VP position. Luck? Nope. I’d paid my dues, was working harder and smarter than many people around me, contributing outside of my role, and building great relationships.
When the second pregnancy came along, although I was still working for the same company who’d been so supportive, I was filled with dread over telling them I was pregnant. I waited four months instead of the standard three. I would have waited longer if I could have hid it longer. I was an executive. My responsibility was greater. I’d gone from managing two to nine people.
My fear was based on pregnancy perception. How were they going to accept this? Would they cut me out?
In the end it was mixed. There was extreme support; A CEO who said, “Enjoy your time” and didn’t call me until two weeks before my scheduled return date simply to state his excitement about my return, and a CTO who said, “If you need more time, take it.” But there was also an undercurrent of architecting around my leave, those who questioned if I’d return, and a host of other negative interactions which were tough to take.
I want to offer some basic to-do’s/not-to-do’s for how to handle pregnancy.
If you truly care about the importance of gender diversity in the workplace, following these guidelines will show you care.
NOT TO DO
1. Cut her out. You may not notice what you’re doing — but if you forget to invite her to a meeting, or make references to “You won’t be around” she will feel excluded. She’ll feel you’re architecting around the idea she won’t come back. She’ll feel you don’t think she’s invested. Keep her as much in the fold as you would if she wasn’t pregnant. She’ll leave feeling critical, and excited to pick up where she left off. Although blatant discrimination against pregnant women is widely researched and covered, subtle is not, and I’m addressing the subtleties here. This article from The Guardian addresses how pregnancy is a constant struggle against misconceptions.
2. Ask her if she’s coming back, or when she’s coming back. Two very different and important questions. Asking if she’s coming back will be a constant reminder that people think she won’t; that she’s not truly committed. She’s dealing with her own sadness about being out, alongside her happiness at building a family. I wrote about this recently, calling it professional heartbreak. Asking when she’s coming back insinuates hope that she won’t take your full policy, or fear that she wants to take more. Either way, she’ll feel pressure. Let her take the policy, and if she asks for more, deal with it however you choose. In absence of her driving a conversation about less or more time, let it be.
3. Let your biases run wild. This applies to the hiring and retaining process. While hiring: Notice a woman has a wedding ring on? Think she might get pregnant and not be around enough? Hire someone else over her? Shame! Once a woman is employed: A promotion opportunity occurs and there are two obvious candidates, the woman actually more obvious than the man, but you hire the man. Why? “She’s not going to be as committed as the man, what if she gets pregnant again…” Bull. HBR did a study on women from their MBA program and found that bias is the #1 barrier to career growth.
“Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement. The message that they are no longer considered “players” is communicated in various, sometimes subtle ways: They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led.”
This phenomenon is often referred to as being “mommy-tracked” as opposed to “fast-tracked.”
- Create a great parental leave policy. See what I did there? I didn’t say maternity leave; I said parental leave. It may sound counterintuitive — but supporting both the mother and father taking time off will actually be more supportive for her than just letting her have three months off, while he gets two weeks. Check out this list of companies going above and beyond. While Netflix goes the radical route of unlimited leave for both parents, Twitter gives birth mothers 20 weeks and birth fathers 10 — still much better than the standard two weeks. What does this achieve? This opens up so much flexibility for parents. They can take time together, or they can take it apart and prolong having to send their baby to someone else’s care. On a higher level, more encouragement and flexibility for fathers lessens the burden on mothers to carry all of the care. If we treat men and women as equally responsible for childcare, and set policies that reflect that, women will have more room to focus on their careers. This article is long, but does a great job outlining the societal restraints that prevent women from growing their careers while having children. I’ll give you the cliffsnotes version:
- Women are having children at older ages, which intersects with their maximum career growth potential timeframe.
- In 40% of households with children, women are primary breadwinners.
- Maternity leave policies in the US generally suck. We’ve created a society that celebrates women for having children, and simultaneously economically & professionally punishes them. 85% of all women receive no benefit. Only if a company is 50 employees or more are you required to hold a job for 12 weeks, without pay. And the woman has to work there for a year.
2. Create a “Stage-back” program, and offer flexibility within reason. If your leave only involves a significant time benefit for the mom, soften the blow upon her return. She’ll have been the primary caregiver for roughly three months, and the bond will be tight. To put this into perspective, a three month old can’t even hold its head up…expecting a new mom to deal with that reality and get right back into the swing of things is a tall order. Create a program that starts with 2 days and scales to the full week. On the topic of flexibility, understand that daycare pick up, doctor’s appointments, and emergencies all need tending. It never feels good to have eyes following you out the door at 4pm a couple days a week or day care pickup, but it is what it is. And it’s ok to expect those parents to contribute outside of normal work hours — whether it’s a few hours on the weekend, or clocking back in every night that they have to take off early. Make sure you apply this to both men and women. This great Forbes article showcases the importance of flexibility for both parents, and the danger of painting flexibility as a mom-only benefit. Allow men and women to mash-up their work/personal schedules as they need to in order to make it work. Treat them like any employee — is the performance there? If yes, do not bring up the schedule. If no, discuss it and how to get performance back.
3. Understand not all pregnancies are created equal. I’ve twice hit the lottery of pregnancies: No morning sickness combined with hormones that make me feel like I look like Gisele. It was like a reverse fun-house mirror, and I miss it. But many women face debilitating morning sickness or other issues in pregnancy. Many women need time out for fertility treatments. Many women miscarry. Don’t apply one woman’s pregnancy experience to another and set expectations accordingly. Don’t make them have to explain the gory details… if you notice issues (absence, obvious sickness), suggest Human Resources reach out so they can have a closed-door conversation about what they’re going through, and then that can be translated to their managers/leadership team.
This is practical advice not only for how to hire & retain talented women, but generally be part of the solution instead of the problem.