The XX Factor

Why Helping Pregnant Women at Work Can Hurt Them in the Long Run

She’s not tired. She’s annoyed that her colleagues told her to “not worry” about a meeting that she had wanted to attend.

Thinkstock/ monkeybusinessimages

If a visibly pregnant colleague dropped her pen on the ground, many of us would be inclined to bend over and pick it up for her. It would be a gesture of compassion on behalf of the picker-upper and a moment of relief for the pen-dropper—a presumable win-win for all parties involved. However, while such exchanges might feel good in the moment, they can lead to negative consequences for a working pregnant woman over time.

A new study found that the more help pregnant women receive at work, including simple acts like a pen retrieval, the more likely they were to want to quit their jobs later on. Also, the researchers found a positive correlation between the amount of help received and the development of feelings of incompetence; the more pregnant women were given a friendly pass on a meeting or left off of challenging projects, the less they were able to see themselves as good workers capable of balancing pregnancy and a job and/or motherhood and a job.

These findings, recently summarized in the Harvard Business Review, are part of a working paper currently under review for publication. For the study, authors Judy Clair, Kristen Jones and Beth K. Humberd, all professors of management, and Eden King, a professor of psychology, had 120 working pregnant women complete a survey for a portion of their pregnancy, and then complete another survey nine months after their babies were born. Based on both the quantitative and qualitative results, they believe that the negative consequences of help are a result of what psychologists call the “threat to self-esteem” theory. The idea here, according to the HBR summary, is “help may be particularly damaging to individuals who are struggling to show that they are fully capable of performing as normal.” In this context, help shores up the pregnant woman’s conern that she can’t do her job well.

Of course, part of the problem is that women are measuring themselves against a “normal” that isn’t particularly hospitable to pregnant women or anyone with caretaker responsibilities. Our workplaces still largely function as though workers don’t have to deal with the reality of gestating and raising children; those who do find themselves in these situations are regularly subject to discrimination. A lot of women avoid this potential fate by leaving the workforce during their pregnancy. According to the Pew Research center, 18 percent of women drop out of the workforce sometime before their last month of pregnancy. While this is a considerable improvement from the 1960s when 65 percent of women did the same, we are still living in a world in which many women view pregnancy and work as incompatible.

While the new study found that all help can have potential negative consequences, the researchers identified a distinction between useful help, which was perceived as supportive, and unuseful help, which was perceived as threatening. Unuseful help was generally seen as help intended to protect the woman from doing something that she actually felt up to doing. When subjected to unuseful help, pregnant women would not only question their present potential as a pregnant woman, but also their future potential as a working mom.

Unfortunately for human resource directors and pregnant women, there is no simple takeaway from these findings, no set of rules or codes of conduct that will simultaneously protect women from pregnancy discrimination while also ensuring their chance to grow professionally during their childbearing years. The reality is, pregnant women do require some accommodation at work (particularly in fields that require physical labor); but, ideally, that accommodation is neither infantilizing or patronizing. The messy answer, then, is for workplaces to give pregnant women the ability to choose what will work best for them, a process which involves both asking them directly and picking up on their cues.

I suspect that the more pregnant women and young mothers become a regular feature of the workplace—both as employees and in positions of leadership—the more society will come to terms with the fact that they are not a monolithic group experiencing a standardized set of physical challenges and feelings. Instead, they’ll be treated like the individuals they are, possessors of a wide variety of ideas of what working while pregnant can and should look like.