How maternity leave stigma is undermining women's careers

·5-min read
Berlin, Germany - June 21: Posed scene: A pregnant woman hands a paper to a supervisor in the office on June 21, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
Women are still paying a penalty for having children, with many reporting that taking maternity leave has had a negative impact on their careers. Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

A new study by researchers at London's South Bank University found that around half of women believe that taking maternity leave has harmed their professional lives. Of a survey of 104 women, who were mostly graduates and included senior managers, around 50 percent said their careers had been negatively affected.

The negative effect was not only due to taking time out from their roles but as a result of stigma too. Many said they had faced microaggressions at work during their pregnancy, such as jokes about their “preggy brain” or judgement for taking time off for maternity appointments.

Women also reported being treated differently by male colleagues when they became pregnant. Senior managers said they began to be treated like secretaries – and asked to do menial tasks around the office.

"A large number of women had experienced a more difficult situation at the workplace because of their pregnancy, such as missing promotions and no further pay-rises or bonuses,” commented Dr Yehia Nawar, who led the study.

The research is further evidence of how far we have to go to reach gender equality in the workplace – and supports previous studies which suggest pregnant women face serious disadvantages at work. In 2017, a survey of 2,000 women by the employment lawyers Slater and Gordon found 42% said attitudes towards them had changed when they announced they were pregnant.

Despite legislation protecting women against unfavourable treatment while pregnant or on maternity leave, one in ten experienced inappropriate behaviour or comments from colleagues. One woman described how she was denied extra help because it was “her fault for getting pregnant,” while others were criticised for taking “free” time off.

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Why pregnancy stigma continues to exist

“There’s a common misconception that taking time off between jobs can be harmful to people’s careers, especially women on maternity leave,” says Nichola Johnson-Marshall, co-founder of the consultancy firm Working Wonder.

“This is from years of discrimination against women in the workplace and an unfair view that once they are a parent they are less committed to their job and not as dedicated to their careers. This is such a shame as being a mum and all of the (unpaid) hard work that goes with caring for children really equips women with so many essential skills and an unparalleled work ethic, actually making them such a dedicated and talented asset to any company.”

This stigma acts as an unfair barrier for many working women. Not only can it stall women’s progression at work, but the impact of discrimination can also be devastating on their confidence too.

“Some women are actually hesitant about starting a family for fear of it harming their career and think that they can either have one thing or another,” says Johnson-Marshall.

“Sometimes it affects further career progression as women won’t go for promotions thinking that if they are a working mum they won’t be supported adequately. This stigma also sometimes acts as an unconscious bias that managers may believe to be true about women and they then may be overlooked for promotion if they are or when they become a mother.”

This stigma can have an impact on women during pregnancy and maternity leave, as well as after they return to work. While many mothers return for financial reasons or simply because they want to, some worry about being side-lined, edged out or feel pressure from their bosses to go back.

“Additionally, when women try to return to the workplace following having children they understandably need more support from their manager and may need an employer to accommodate more flexible working patterns to work around childcare arrangements,” says Johnson-Marshall. “Again historically, women have been made to feel uncomfortable asking for this as it used to be different to the norm.”

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What to do if you’re experiencing stigma or discrimination at work

If you are experiencing stigma or being treated unfairly at work during your pregnancy, there are various things you can do. Firstly, it’s important to speak up, especially in the moment when it is happening to you.

“Talk to a trusted colleague, escalate it to your manager or HR if you feel you are able to talk to them,” says Johnson-Marshall. “There are also many brilliant campaigning organisations such as Pregnant Then Screwed who provide tonnes of free resources and advice.”

It’s also the responsibility of others in the workplace to support working parents in their careers, Johnson-Marshall adds. “The more men that take advantage of the existing shared parental leave, the better it is for working mums as this helps to normalise being a working parent and to share the load,” she says.

“If you are a manager of someone who is pregnant, don’t assume anything and ask them directly how you and the organisation can best support them during their pregnancy at work, their maternity leave and then their return to work. If you aren’t personally experienced or equipped to do so, speak to other colleagues who are working parents, ask for training yourself and see if they would benefit from a career coach.”

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