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12 Oct. 2016 | Comments (0)

According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, working while pregnant is becoming increasingly common. In the late 1960s, about 40% of women worked full-time during their first pregnancies; by 2008 that figure rose to almost 60%. The report also found that eight in ten women (82%) worked until they were within one month of their due date.

Women now represent close to half of all workers. They are a key part of any organization’s talented workforce. Yet, pregnancy in the workplace can put women in a tough position. Pregnant women can be stigmatized at work; they are viewed as less competent and capable, and more irrational than their non-pregnant peers. This finding is consistent with research on working mothers, who are stereotyped as “warm” but “incompetent.”  Pregnant women are also discriminated against in the workplace—denied opportunities, not promoted, forced to take leave, or even fired.  Women are often well aware of these risks, and the experience and expectation of stigma and discrimination during pregnancy can make them more likely to want to leave their jobs after their child is born.

So what can organizations do about this? The answer seems straightforward in principle: provide them with greater support. And people do try to help pregnant workers. Two separate studies, one a field experiment and the other a survey of pregnant working women, confirmed that help is offered both formally through organizational policies and informally via coworkers. However, we don’t have a good understanding of how this help actually affects women’s career attitudes and decisions.

To gain insight into this, we undertook a longitudinal research project (currently under review at an academic journal), in which 120 working pregnant women completed weekly surveys for a portion of their pregnancy, giving us more than 1,200 completed responses. We surveyed the women again nine months after the birth of their babies to explore how the help they received at work while pregnant influenced their post-partum career attitudes and aspirations. Of the 85 women who filled out the follow-up survey, 81 had returned to work.

We found that help didn’t help women’s careers. In fact, the more help women received at work while pregnant, the more they wanted to quit their jobs nine months after their babies were born. Moreover, women who received more help at work also developed greater negative self-views about their potential to be good workers and working mothers, as compared to women who said that they received less help at work while pregnant. So rather than having a positive effect on women’s career attitudes and decisions, receiving help seemed to do the opposite.

Why would helping women during pregnancy have a negative effect? One theory from psychology — called the threat-to-self-esteem-model — offers an explanation: help may be particularly damaging to individuals who are struggling to show that they are fully capable of performing as normal. In other words, when a person is already worried about being able to perform, receiving help confirms these fears and insinuates that they are indeed underperforming.

The qualitative comments from our research show that women do worry about their job capabilities during pregnancy. First, they face several challenges to performing normally: they balance competing demands of their jobs, requirements of pregnancy (such as frequent doctor’s appointments or bed rest), and pregnancy symptoms such as morning sickness or exhaustion. Further, women want to maintain their professionalism during pregnancy, and many try to avoid signaling that they are less capable or independent than in the past.

According to the threat-to-self-esteem-model, these worries and challenges set women up for a self-fulfilling prophesy.  When help is received, women take this as a sign that they can’t keep up any longer.  The help may lead women to feel more dependent on others to get their work done, and they feel less capable of doing their work because of their pregnancy – even if this isn’t the case.  There are often mixed emotions because women may feel grateful for the help they receive, but also want to be able to prove to themselves and to others that they can do the work on their own.

We found that women were appreciative of physical and practical help, such as being allowed to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, but they were less enthusiastic about other kinds of help, such as when they felt that coworkers were trying to protect them or when they believed that they were being denied challenging work.  This finding reflects a more general negative reaction women have in the workplace when they are “protected” or denied opportunities because they are seen as weaker or less capable.  Importantly, helping seemed to negatively affect women’s views of themselves regardless of whether or not they welcomed it.

These findings might explain why some women choose to opt out from work altogether after having a child. While it is difficult to estimate how many women might leave work because of this, prior research suggests that women are more inclined to quit when they feel unable to manage competing demands. Our results show that women who receive more help from others during pregnancy may lose faith in their own abilities to both work and parent, which makes them more inclined to quit after their child is born.

To be clear: this does not mean employees shouldn’t try to help their pregnant coworkers. What matters is that the ways we support pregnant women increase, rather than decrease, their confidence in their abilities to manage the demands of work and non-work roles. Managers and employees should ensure that their offers to help do not send any inadvertent messages to women, such as that they are incapable of balancing competing demands. They should be wary of taking away work or denying opportunities.

Help will be most welcome when it’s offered in response to someone’s request, is negotiated with her, and encourages autonomy instead of dependency. If women ask for help and accommodations, such as a lighter workload or time off for doctor’s appointments, they should be accommodated. But companies should seek to understand what support women want most. For example, one woman in our sample was allowed to leave work early for doctor’s appointments—but she was not given a lighter workload overall. As she stated: “At the time I was overwhelmed but it allowed me to prove that I can handle both pregnancy and work during the busiest of times.”

This shows that the kind of help offered matters for bolstering women’s confidence that they can handle challenges. Supporting pregnant workers is not a one-size-fits-all approach and the quality of support received during pregnancy could make the difference in retaining top female talent long-term. Managers should make no assumptions about the kind of help that a pregnant worker wants or needs — instead they should ask questions, maintain an open dialogue, and be open and flexible to the unique needs of pregnant workers.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 09/27/2016.

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  • About the Author:Judy Clair

    Judy Clair

    Judy Clair, Ph.D. University of Southern California, is an associate professor at Boston College in the Management and Organization Department.  Professor Clair’s research interests include…

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  • About the Author:Kristen Jones, PhD.

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    Kristen Jones, an Assistant Professor of Management in the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on identifying and remediating subtle bi…

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  • About the Author:Eden King

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    Dr. Eden King is an Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and an Associate Editor of the Journal of Management and the Journal of Business and Psychology. She has published over…

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  • About the Author:Beth K. Humberd

    Beth K. Humberd

    Beth K. Humberd is an assistant professor of management in the Manning School of Business at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  She received her PhD in Organization Studies from Boston…

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