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 The State of Pregnancy

by Stephany Schings, SIOP Communications Manager

SIOP Members Discuss Attitudes About Pregnancy in the Workplace  

With women comprising 46.8% of the total U.S. labor force in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, chances are good that most organizations will encounter pregnant employees at some point. But even as women’s share of the workforce has grown over the last 20 years, two SIOP members ask, “Does discrimination against pregnant women still exist?”

In 2008 alone, 6,285 pregnancy discrimination complaints were filed with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2008). At the same time, increasingly more women are working during pregnancy (Overturf & Downs, 2005). However, whether or not pregnancy discrimination exists is a source of debate, says SIOP Member Jane Halpert, professor of I-O psychology in the psychology department at DePaul.
“I think it depends on who you ask,” she explained. “If you ask women who have been pregnant while working, they will almost universally tell you ‘yes, there is discrimination.’ If you ask other people in the workplace, they will almost always say, ‘What? There’s discrimination?’”
Halpert wanted a more definitive answer, so along with SIOP Student Affiliate Sarah Haynes, a doctoral student in I-O psychology at DePaul University, she undertook research to assess the attitudes and stereotypes regarding pregnant women in today’s workforce. For 3 years Halpert and Haynes have researched the topic of biases and discrimination, particularly with respect to pregnancy. The two presented some of their research findings in two posters at this year’s SIOP annual conference, “Attitudes About Pregnant Employees: Change Over Twenty Years” and “Investigating Pregnancy and Marital Status Discrimination in Employee Performance Appraisals.”

What the two found was that though one study showed no discrimination against pregnant women on job-related criteria, non-job-related assessments are still affected by pregnancy, and some attitudes about pregnant women have remained the same since 1989 or grown more negative.

“We were hoping that over 20 years, attitudes would have gotten a little bit better, but really the answer is no,” Halpert said.

“Attitudes About Pregnant Employees: Change Over Twenty Years” presented findings from a study by Halpert and Haynes that looked at changes in stereotypes regarding pregnant employees over the last 2 decades. Current data from 2009 were compared with parallel data from a study Halpert was involved with in 1989. The authors of the 1989 study developed a pregnancy attitudes measure that assessed attitudes along six dimensions. “Pregnant Women as Employees” looks at perceptions of how the working environment is affected by the presence of pregnant workers (see chart). “Company Treatment of Pregnant Employees” covers beliefs about what, if any, accommodations should be made for a pregnant worker, including a variety of family-friendly policies. “Choose Career or Family” centers on beliefs that women (but not men) should choose to have either a career or children but cannot expect to have both.  “Emotional Stereotypes” contains beliefs about pregnant women being erratic, emotional, and psychologically fragile. “Physical Limitations” covers beliefs about the type and extent of physical limits that pregnancy places upon a woman’s capabilities. Finally, “Contemporary Feminism” looks at attitudes about such issues as women in the military and the Equal Rights Amendment.

The survey showed that attitudes about pregnant women as employees (Factor 1) became more negative over time, and support for family-friendly organizational policies (Factor 2) decreased.  There were no significant changes in the Factors 3 and 4. In 1989, all four dimensions showed attitudinal differences between men and women. Men were less comfortable with pregnant women as employees, showed lower levels of support for family-friendly company policies, were more likely to feel that women should choose either a career or a family (but not both), and held stronger stereotypes about pregnant women being emotional and vulnerable. In 2009 all these male-female differences except the last still existed.
“What we found was that there is still stereotyping,” Halpert explained. “In some ways it’s worse; some issues have become moot.”
For example, 20 years ago, people tended to be very opinionated about pregnant women or mothers serving in the military, she said, but now, it’s no longer an issue, according to her research. Four of the six dimensions found in 1989 were found to still exist. The results show that while the content of these stereotypes has changed only a bit, they have become more negative, especially when expressed by men.

Dimensions of Pregnancy Stereotype Measure
Factor 1: Pregnant Employees (“I think I might have trouble working for a woman who was pregnant.” “Women have mixed-up priorities when they are pregnant.”)
Factor 2: Company Policies (“Companies should be required by law to make special accommodations, such as shorter working hours or less strenuous jobs, to help employees who become pregnant.” “Companies should provide on-site day care facilities for employees’ children.”)
Factor 3: Choices (“Children of career-oriented mothers suffer some bad effects due to their mother’s working.” “Pregnant women should not work once their pregnancy starts to show.”)
Factor 4: Emotions (“Women tend to get more emotional when they are pregnant.” “When a female worker becomes pregnant, all the women in the office gather to talk about baby things.”)

“The research showed there are still attitudes relating to the fact that women should choose, that you can either have a career or a family,” Halpert said. “Men tended to hold them more strongly than women in the past and that has not changed.  It hasn’t even gone down at all. For example, we had a lot of people saying that pregnant women are emotionally volatile, that you have to walk on eggshells around them, that they will break in to tears at the slightest provocation. We have people who still say they are distracted from their jobs.”

Although Halpert acknowledged it may be the case that some pregnant women have volatile emotions or are distracted, an all-encompassing stereotype like this can be harmful to pregnant women.

“It contributes to an attitude that pregnant women are more trouble to deal with than other kinds of employees,” she said, “which may be taken a step further that would be pregnant women are more trouble than what they are worth.”

Halpert said the stereotypes may not be over with the pregnancy, either.

“One of the directions we are going with this research is this incidence of when someone looks at a woman with a child, they think, ‘okay, pretty soon this is going to be a woman with an infant. Every time the baby sneezes, she’ll have to leave work,’” Halpert explained.

Halpert said these stereotypes could lead to pregnant women or mothers of young children being given lighter loads at work or missing out on high-profile projects.

On a positive note, pregnant women may not need to worry about receiving lower salaries or fewer promotions, according to “Investigating Pregnancy and Marital Status Discrimination in Employee Performance Appraisals.” In this study, Haynes and Halpert investigated whether employee pregnancy and marital status influence perceptions of women’s performance. Participants consisting of 290 undergraduate students attending a mid-sized midwestern university provided performance ratings and recommendations after viewing a video of an employee completing assessment center tasks. Results suggest that an employee’s pregnancy status influences an observer’s ratings of non-job-related performance (i.e., physical mannerisms, creativity, appearance, etc.) but not ratings of job ability or promotion and salary recommendations. There was a significant effect of pregnancy status on the non-job- related performance factor, in that participants in the pregnant employee condition assigned lower ratings to the pregnant employee than those in the non-pregnant condition.  In contrast, there was no significant effect of pregnancy status on the job ability factor.

Haynes said this doesn’t mean stereotyping was not a problem.

“Creativity and other non-job related factors can actually be related to job performance depending on the job in question,” Haynes explained. “What’s interesting is that if you look at a different type of jobs, creativity physical mannerisms and appearance may be important factors for promotions and salary. Maybe for a news anchor it would matter if a woman is pregnant, but for a newspaper reporter it would not. Overall, it is encouraging that pregnancy did not result in lower ratings of job ability or employment outcomes in our study but it is important to consider whether this finding will hold across professions and positions.”

Halpert said employees can help prevent pregnancy discrimination and stereotyping by keeping lines of communications open.

“When I have interviewed pregnant women, I have heard a lot of stories of really inappropriate behavior, but when you look at the instances, I think some numbers of them are really about poor communications,” Halpert explained. “For example, if a woman tells her manager she is pregnant and he assumes she can no longer fly, and he takes her off the fly list or travel arrangement list. She might get angry and tell her boss, ‘I can fly,’ and he might apologize and say he didn’t know. Those are types of things you can discuss with your boss beforehand.”

Many women aren’t sure how to broach the topic of pregnancy, Halpert added, but they should try to put themselves in their employer’s shoes.

 “I get a reasonable amount of calls from employees asking, ‘How do I tell my boss I am pregnant?’” Halpert said. “I tell them, ‘Think about what your boss wants to know.’ Tell them, ‘Here is when I want to go on maternity leave, and here is who will cover my work, and this is what I plan to do, etc.’ If you want the maternity leave you are entitled to, you have to talk to your human resources department to arrange that.”

Halpert said companies should then work to be accommodating.

 “The employers and employees need to discuss this and say, ‘Yes, this is going to happen; pregnant women need to take time off to go to the doctor, so how are we going to handle this?’” Halpert added. “It’s not, ‘Do we fire her because we don’t want to deal with this?’ it’s ‘How are we going to handle this so that she gets what she needs, and the company is not harmed by it?’ For example, if you get an employee who is having terrible morning sickness, one option might be that she can come into work a little later and stay a little later. There are always options that work for both the woman and the company.”

One action that can be helpful, Halpert added, is more education regarding pregnancy discrimination.

“One thing is that companies, attorneys, and their HR departments tend to know pregnancy discrimination is illegal, but rank and file managers may not be as aware of this,” Halpert said. “By now most people know that they can’t commit racial discrimination, though some still do it, but not everyone knows they can’t commit pregnancy discrimination. So more education would be beneficial.”

Companies could also think of pregnancy as a type of short-term disability, Halpert suggested.

“If someone breaks their leg, they can take time off to go and get X-rays or go to the doctor, and no organization would have anything against that,” she said.

Both Haynes and Halpert suggested employers work to accommodate special needs of pregnant employees.

“It’s easy to come up with alternative work arrangements,” Haynes said. “It’s encouraging organizations to be creative and accommodative to meeting the needs of employees. The more responsive and helpful organizations are, chances are employees will go above and beyond.”
     Overturf, J. J. & Downs, B. (2005).  Maternity leave and employment patterns: 1961-2000.  Current Population Report. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.