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The pregnant pause: are attitudes changing at work?

Janet Yellen, the US Federal Reserve chair, recently gave a profound (and long) speech about women’s participation in the economy. She included a detailed history of women’s participation in the workforce since 1891 as well as an analysis of the factors which appear to be holding women back in the workforce today.

In particular, Yellen highlighted the difficulty women currently have in trying to combine their careers with other aspects of their lives, including caregiving.

I’ve had my own experience of being a pregnant woman in the workforce and observed the challenges Yellen outlined. Yet my personal experience has been quite different to the frankly downbeat world she described. 

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In particular, I was fully supported and felt completely in control of my shift into a – admittedly unnerving - new role in life: motherhood.

"[As a mother] my experience, knowledge and career goals had not changed – why would my value in the workplace?” - Sarah Parker

I had never considered experiencing any form of discrimination in the workplace when I fell pregnant. Nor had I had ever really contemplated a compromise, on any scale, between my work and home aspirations. It might sound naïve but my experience, knowledge and career goals had not changed –why would my value in the workplace?

Seizing opportunities

At five months pregnant, I had the opportunity to travel in Asia for work. This is an important region in my business and represented a terrific career opportunity.

I felt encouraged by wide-reaching senior support from my managers and had the support of my family and health professionals.

I barely hesitated before grabbing this opportunity. I would not have hesitated five months before – why would I now? But I did get a new perspective.

Of the many engagements I attended, speaking to a wide variety of professionals in large corporations and in various banking organisations, I found people overwhelmingly responded very positively to my (becoming very apparent) pregnancy.

Professionally my pregnancy barely registered a comment beyond an occasional mild inquisition about travelling in ‘my condition’ - although some people insisted on me eating particular foods for the baby or suggested I ‘take it easy’.

Bumps along the road

There were, of course, a few bumps along the way. One curious onlooker asked me why my husband let me travel while expecting our child. Another asked me how my husband let me wear heels at this time…

There were various comments around hormones and so-called ‘baby brain’ and mood fluctuations.

During normal daily activities like catching the subway or waiting for friends at coffee shops, I would sometimes receive a stare and a pointed frown at my belly from strangers passing-by.

One young woman on a crowded MTR looked so distressed when she vacated her seat for me (and I refused it) –I promptly sat down to appease her!

By and large though, people were kind and chivalrous.

Yet I know – and Janet Yellon’s speech clearly articulated – my experience is not always shared.

Challenges

One in two mothers report experiencing discrimination at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or on return to work, according to a review by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

This can range from negative attitudes in the workplace through to job loss. The review also highlighted the organisational cost of this discrimination included loss of talent, knowledge and skills; lower productivity among employees; higher staff turnover and a decline in the organisation’s reputation. 

Stereotypes about women as mothers and carers can mean women with young children are less likely than fathers to be nominated for promotion or put forward for leadership programs, according to The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) perspective paper Different genders, different lives’. The paper also suggests it is often assumed mothers will experience conflict between life and work more often than male colleagues.

Doubts

On the downside for me, personally, there were internal fears and doubts, sometimes amplified by subtle attitudes around me throughout my pregnancy.

The fear people wouldn’t take me seriously anymore was born out when I observed a gradual shift in conversations from work matters to my pregnancy.

Family and friends’ reactions to my plan to return to work less than 12 month after giving birth was less than supportive, giving way to an emerging feeling of guilt.

The fear I would need to reconfigure my career expectations – while my husband would not – was fanned by conversations within my personal network.

But this inconsistent experience, whether across industries, organisations or cultures, simply serves to reinforce the central message: women make an equally valuable contribution to business, economic growth and society. But they do sometimes have unique experiences – such as pregnancy.

Ensuring the inclusion of women’s participation in the workforce is important and there is a clear link between lower participation rates and shouldering the majority of caring responsibilities, described for example in the 2014 paper Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review: The gender gap in the Australian workforce.

This challenge is further highlighted by the full-time gender pay gap in Australia of 16 per cent. In my industry, financial and insurance services, the gender pay gap is the highest at 30.8 per cent.

Even when pay is not the central issue however, there is a broader need to support women’s participation in the workforce for the greater prosperity of our communities.

That’s where the issuing of managing pregnancy and career becomes a critical point.

Promoting a wider definition of primary caregiving, as well as for co-parents and partners, would benefit both the company and individuals – and hence the economy.

I feel particularly fortunate my experience, and the policies of my employer and attitudes of management, was so positive. But I know my experience is far from universal. We should though aspire to make it so.

Three lessons I learned:

• Have a plan. Just as you would have for any extended time off – I proposed a plan for my maternity leave which I shared with my bosses as soon as practical. Collectively we were able to best plan for my maternity leave, and look forward to my returning to work.

• Leverage your support network. Having family, friends and colleagues who understand and support your personal decisions goes a long way to giving you the confidence to continue to strive for your goals.

• Be opportunistic. Grasp opportunities when they come your way, and hopefully this is enabled by your strong support network. 

Sarah Parker is an Associate Director, Global Product Management at ANZ 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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