Pregnant workers face bias, studies show

Working women

May 15, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- When male workers proudly tell employers and colleagues that they're about to become fathers, the usual response is joyful congratulations.

But when female workers proudly make the same announcement -- or word gets out -- often the response is that, figuratively, everyone breaks out in a sweat.

"Pregnancy for the professional too often is considered abnormal or malignant," said Karen Larson, head of the anthropology and sociology departments at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. "It's a constant reminder at work both of the woman's professional and personal lives, which traditionally have been separate. It makes many co-workers and bosses fear that the pregnant worker will never return from a soft belly to a hard nose."

If Larson, who is married to Stephen Cody, professor of economics at Mankato State University, and has two small children, sounds hard-nosed about this facet of the pernicious "mommy track," it's because her research backs up her statement.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the rate of childbirth increased 26 percent in the years between 1983 and 1988 among professional women over 30 years of age. Yet pregnancy in the workplace, Larson said, "increasingly challenges deeply seated cultural beliefs as more women are bearing children in the middle of their careers."

The anthropologist, who earned her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, asserts that the pregnant woman "is transformed in the eyes of her employer and is not viewed as useful as she once was. Her blossoming form is undeniable testament that in addition to being an employee, she has a private life. A woman who is let go or demoted while pregnant is being told, in essence, that she can only become pregnant and be a mother -- that work should be segregated from home and family. And pregnancy stamps her as an irrevocably biological being."

Resentment, loss of credibility at work and with clients and fewer chances to get important assignments or to travel are forms of subtle bias professionals face when they become pregnant and when they return from maternity leave, Larson notes.

There's overt bias, too, even toward top-ranking professional women who have managed to break through the "glass ceiling" and, therefore, often are sheltered from some of the harsher realities of sexism in the workplace.

"Despite federal legislation prohibiting employment discrimination because of pregnancy, pregnant women are fired, demoted or denied benefits," said Larson. "The expectant worker is viewed as drifting across the boundary into a haze of hormones and motherly instincts, perhaps never to return. . . . Part of what I'm getting as I hear the ferocity of the kinds of opposition pregnant women face is that the woman's body is central to what's happening, and what we're dealing with is a very deep-seated fear of the female body to procreate."

In 1987, Bonnie Michaels, now president of Managing Work & Family Inc., started her Chicago consulting firm because of "what I had experienced as a single parent, how difficult I found it to manage work and family because there were not enough support systems."

Michaels said much of her work today was "training senior and middle managers to realize the stigma that exists once you announce you're going to have a child and are no longer taken seriously in your career."

Corporations are sensitizing managers in order to "retain qualified female employees. If they've been loyal and productive, why should they be any different when they have children?" the consultant asked.

She said flexible management was the key and had to replace "old perceptions" some executives have of women. "Businesses have to promote women to management positions to show, through actions, they really believe that women are very qualified -- even though they have children," she said.

Anthropologist Larson believes what's needed is legislation to make parental leave and a guaranteed job mandatory after maternity leave. "If we can do it for our soldiers who fought in the Middle East, we can do it for our working mothers," she said.

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