Why Job Hunting While Pregnant Is Such a Minefield

Interviewing is always stressful. With a baby bump, it’s even worse.

A pregnant woman holding her belly, with an office interior in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Heather Mount on Unsplash, and Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.

Kristen Dixon was more than halfway through her pregnancy when she was laid off. She couldn’t find work in Clearwater, Florida, where she and her husband lived, so they moved to Norfolk, Virginia, closer to Dixon’s family.

Dixon’s the primary breadwinner in her household, and their first baby was getting closer to his due date. Finally, she got a call to come in for an interview.

“They were obviously taken aback: ‘Oh. Hiiii,’ ” Dixon recalls them saying. It occurred to her they were surprised to see her so, well, pregnant. “Generally, interviews are the easiest part for me,” says Dixon. But, she says, the interviewers were dismayed by her pregnant belly. She realized, “This was going to be harder than I thought.” She didn’t get the job, but she wasn’t sure whether it was about her pregnancy. But how could she really know?

Most women face ambiguous questions at some point during their careers: Am I getting paid less than my male counterparts? Am I losing out on promotions because I’m a woman? We know from studies on pay differentials and job seniority between men and women that the general answer to those questions is yes. But hiring discrimination against pregnant women is not as easy to detect and, so far, has not been studied in a broad, quantitative fashion. Unless a hiring manager points at your belly and says, “No way,” it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on.

In June, the New York Times shined some much-needed light on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. As it reported, “Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.”

And according to A Better Balance, a New York–based organization of lawyers that advocates for women’s rights in the workplace, an estimated 250,000 pregnant workers each year are denied accommodations (such as a specialized chair for the cubicle or the right to bring a water bottle into a warehouse)—and who knows how many more are afraid to ask in the first place.

In an environment like this, it’s easy to see why interviewing while pregnant could become such a minefield. Statistics on discrimination against pregnant job seekers, however, just don’t exist. The already nebulous experience of interviewing is exactly what makes this so maddening. We know it happens, but it’s hard enough to identify, let alone to correct. But is there anything women can do to improve their own chances of walking away with jobs and employers that support them?

First, it’s important that women know their rights. Even if a woman is showing, she does not have to disclose a pregnancy to her interviewer, and she cannot be denied a job or fired because of a pregnancy, according to the 1978 federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act. But the act doesn’t go all the way in protecting women’s rights, says Elizabeth Chen, a staff attorney at A Better Balance, because it only covers workplaces with 15 or more employees.

Laws in some states and localities extend protections further. A Better Balance has drafted bills for paid sick leave, pregnancy accommodations, and other regulations to protect the health and employment of pregnant employees that have passed in 23 states and four localities. A federal version was introduced in 2012 but has not yet passed in Congress.

The state laws differ in wording, though they all extend protection to smaller workplaces than the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act does. In New York City, for example, the law applies similar protections to workplaces with four or more employees. This means that unless your boss can prove your pregnancy would seriously harm her business, you have the right to an extra bathroom break, a larger uniform, space to pump milk, or other accommodations before and after pregnancy. But in Virginia, where there is no state law specifically addressing pregnant workers’ rights, the options are not as clear. The Virginia Human Rights Act prohibits pregnancy discrimination and states that pregnant women must be treated the same as others, but few people have been able to successfully sue under this law.

Most of these laws are only helpful when a woman is already in a job. When it comes to hiring, there’s little basis for knowing the real reasons for a decision, and it’s hard to decipher whether or how pregnancy played a role. This means appealing to the law for help is basically impossible when it comes to the job interview, unless the hiring manager openly says he or she won’t hire a pregnant person—which is what happened in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s successful suits against Subway and Weight Watchers.

This leaves expectant mothers figuring out their own strategies for protecting themselves. For some, hiding the pregnancy is still possible, especially if the interview takes place over the phone or video conferencing. Others may actively try to hide a baby bump by dressing strategically—wearing a loose top, blazer, or scarf to distract the eye. And many don’t consider telling hiring managers before an in-person interview or offer negotiation.

Even though the law says an applicant does not have to disclose a pregnancy, it’s still hard to know what to do. “What, am I going to put in my résumé, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant?’ ” Dixon says. “I don’t really know how to address it. … I’m a woman of childbearing age, so it’s kind of like a normal function for someone to have a baby. It doesn’t really need to be that big of a deal.”

Most of the women we talked with said they would not have told prospective employers about their pregnancies in the early stages, if they could help it, and are fine with their choices.

Maria, who we’re identifying by a pseudonym because she works in a small professional field in New York, was four months pregnant when she went on an interview and decided not to disclose her pregnancy. “I recall choosing an outfit that would not show my little belly,” Maria says. “I went in and had my interview with human resources, and it was fine.” She did disclose her pregnancy when her interviewers asked her to take a drug test (contrary to widespread misinformation, job-related drug tests typically do not show results for pregnancy hormones). But after her drug test, the potential employer ghosted Maria. She never heard back.

Even without the physical signs of pregnancy, the job search while expecting a new baby can be fraught for women.

Wanda Jeter, an MRI and CAT scan technologist from Richmond, Virginia, chose not to tell her interviewers that she and her husband were soon to be approved for an adoption. They weren’t sharing that news with anyone outside their immediate family, she says. Friends who had lost an adoption because the birth parents chose to keep the baby and friends who had been through miscarriages advised Jeter to not tell anybody outside a close circle.

When Jeter told her boss a few months later that she was approved to adopt a baby girl, Jeter says her boss “looked stunned” and asked why she didn’t say anything in the interview.

“I told her the God’s honest truth,” Jeter says. “I said, ‘I have gone through 10 years of infertility treatments. It didn’t work. There was no guarantee that this would work either, so I didn’t want to tell anybody that something may happen.’ ” Jeter took off three unpaid weeks to be with her newborn daughter, but her employer wouldn’t let her take more time because she didn’t qualify for leave. (The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which allows 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, covers businesses with 50 or more employees and applies only to workers with 12 or more months of employment.) She and her husband scrambled to find someone to watch the baby at home until the infant was old enough to go to day care.

Dixon advises expectant moms to find out whatever they can about a business’s policies regarding pregnancy, family leave, and disability. Unlike most Western countries, the United States does not have a federal paid leave law, so the decision is left to employers. Some larger employers offer information about employee policies online, and websites like Glassdoor and Indeed allow job candidates to read employees’ confidential reviews of companies. If you have a friend or acquaintance at a firm, ask about the culture and benefits. Chen cautions that even if a company has a “progressive” reputation, it may not have the family-friendly benefits to back that up—or may even be hostile toward pregnant workers.

More businesses do provide paid leave than before, even for employees of less than a year, and California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island have laws requiring partially paid parental leave. According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2018 Employee Benefits Survey, the number of women receiving paid maternity leave increased from 26 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2018. Workers at larger companies fare better than those at small businesses, the study says, and higher-status white-collar employees are far more likely to have paid leave. But a newly hired pregnant employee is more likely to take disability time (usually unpaid) or vacation time after giving birth, and her job may not be protected, depending on the size of the company.

It’s also way more likely for American women to work while pregnant now, according to census data. Only 44 percent of women in the workforce in the early 1960s worked during their first pregnancies. By contrast, 66 percent of women who had children between 2006 and 2008 worked while pregnant, and 82 percent remained on the job into the final month of pregnancy. These numbers began to shift significantly in the late 1970s and early ’80s, once the Pregnancy Discrimination Act went into effect and more households were dependent on women’s paychecks.

In addition, the number of women in temporary employment—which typically does not offer leave or other benefits—is growing. In July, more than 3 million people were working in temporary jobs, up from 2 million in July 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So it makes sense that some women choose to delay a job search until after a pregnancy or take a temporary or nontraditional job while pregnant.

Leslie Duncan said she didn’t feel comfortable going on interviews when she left Florida for her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She says she was worried that any employer, realizing she would be leaving soon to give birth, would feel resentment that could affect her career down the road. “I thought to myself, ‘Who’s going to hire me pregnant?’ ” Duncan recalls. She still needed to earn money, though, and landed on an unorthodox solution: driving for Lyft, which did not require an in-person interview. Until a couple of weeks before her daughter’s birth, she mostly drove from 5 a.m. to noon. After driving a few days, she discovered that the money was about the same as that from her previous sales job.

Dixon, meanwhile, chose to keep applying for full-time jobs in Norfolk. At seven months pregnant, she went into an interview with a Navy contractor “with my chin up,” wearing a hand-me-down maternity suit, and braced for side eye. But she says this office of about 100 employees was “unfazed.” She was hired as an instructional systems designer and had baby Luke in late July. She’s taking a few weeks of parental leave—offered by her company even without a year of employment completed—and then will work for a few weeks from home.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a big deal.”

And perhaps soon, with more legislation and workplaces thinking broadly about employee investment, seeking a job while pregnant won’t be as big a deal for any woman or employer.