Mom-Bias at Work Is Real—Here’s How to Handle It

I didn’t want my colleagues to think pregnancy was affecting my performance, so I remember cramming in my last bit of work before I had to leave the office. At 34 weeks along with my first baby, I was meeting my husband to attend our first newborn care class at the hospital.

As we drove home from that class a few hours later, my water unexpectedly broke all over the front seat and we had to race back to the hospital. That night, an unexpected C-section thrust me into motherhood, and my baby daughter was whisked away to the NICU soon after she was born.

A week later, my boss called me. After some congratulatory small talk, he asked me if I’d be willing to come into the office to train the person who would be covering my maternity leave. My baby’s early arrival had finally forced a coverage plan for my job into place.

As Kimberly Harrington writes in her book Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words, “(The world of work) celebrates the birth of our children with flowers in our hospital rooms and a baby gift sent home, but expects us to snap to and be on our game 12 weeks or less after delivering another human being into the world.”

At one week postpartum, what I wanted to say to him was, “You realize I just had major abdominal surgery, right? I have a newborn still in the hospital with a feeding tube down her throat. And, my postpartum emotions are so entangled with joy and worry that all I can do is cry!”

Instead, I said “maybe next week,” hung up the phone, and burst into tears. I ultimately didn’t go into the office, but I did spend an afternoon on the phone training my replacement.

 

Source: @sevc23

 

Now with six years, subsequent supportive bosses, and personal growth in parenthood and womanhood between me and this moment, I’m able to look back with new reflection. If I would have been a man who had major abdominal surgery, would my boss have made that call? By not speaking up in my own moment of mom-bias, how many women did I disservice in my servitude to the status quo? Will a time come when articles like “I interviewed for a new job while heavily pregnant” and “woman reveals how a company knowingly hired her while pregnant” no longer be newsworthy?

Katherine Goldstein, journalist and founder of the new Double Shift podcast writes, “There’s widespread evidence that bias against pregnant women and mothers is a systemic problem beyond a few bad bosses.” We looked at more insights from attorneys, journalists, and entrepreneurs (all moms) who are in the trenches advocating for working mothers, and pulled together some of the best tips to help address moments of mom-bias at work.

 

(The world of work) celebrates the birth of our children with flowers in our hospital rooms and a baby gift sent home, but expects us to snap to and be on our game 12 weeks or less after delivering another human being into the world.

 

Know Your Rights as a Pregnant Person

Candace Alnaji, attorney and author of the popular blog The Mom at Law, writes “Your employer cannot fire you because you decided to have a baby. In fact, they cannot make any employment decision on the basis of your pregnancy.”

Since laws vary by state, do your research and dust off a copy of your company’s employee handbook to prepare yourself for conversations with HR and your supervisor. You can best advocate for yourself when you are armed with all of the important information.

 

Be Proactive

Make an off-boarding plan with your team by the time you hit your third trimester. Manage the maternity leave paperwork so it’s easy for your supervisor or HR to sign-off. Schedule re-entry meetings with your team when you anticipate you’ll be back in the office to help fend off openly mom-bias questions like, “Are you going to come back to work?” (No one asks dads this question, of course.)

Managing all of this becomes more challenging when you’re on a small team without a large budget or people to fill the gap, but there are solutions. Women-owned businesses like The Fifth Trimester and Live Work Lead are helping move employers beyond maternity-leave policies and toward more supportive, family-friendly work environments.

 

 

Watch Out for Assumptions

When my daughter was about a year old, I remember my supervisor on a project asked me if I was willing to go on a week-long work trip. Thankfully, she asked before assuming I didn’t want to travel, so I was able to say yes — I wanted to continue to manage the project through completion.

Assumptions and actions made in an effort to “lighten the load” for mothers can not only be harmful to their career trajectory, but they can also be unlawful. Alnaji notes that “assumptions regarding an employee’s plans or abilities can be another sign of workplace discrimination.”

Some examples of these assumptions she shares include an employer:

  • Assuming a pregnant worker will not return to work after maternity leave
  • Assuming a pregnant worker will not be interested in taking on new projects during her pregnancy, or assuming she will be unable to perform her current job duties

Alnaji also recommends putting everything in writing to avoid miscommunications, and to have a reference if the worst should happen and you experience mom-bias or discrimination. She states, “You are your own best advocate in the workplace, so when in doubt: document.”

 

Be Frank, Open, and Honest

Pregnancy and childbirth are essential to human existence, so we shouldn’t have to be vague with language surrounding them. Be honest about the realities of business travel (like getting reimbursed for shipping breast milk home to your baby, or of managing an all-day meeting without a break to pump.)

If you work in a male-dominated office, remember it’s not necessarily that men don’t want to support working women, they simply may not have the experience to draw from and don’t understand the realities new moms face (hello engorgement). If they seem initially uncomfortable with terms like “pumping” or “breastfeeding,” start to normalize it. Others will begin to feel more comfortable following suit.

I remember early in my career, my cubicle was right outside the mothers’ room at our office and a young male coworker casually asked me if the room was where moms went to nap. While a napping room isn’t a bad idea, how would a 25-year-old copywriter know anything about pumping breastmilk? As a new mom six years ago, much of it was even a shock to me.

Thankfully we are making strides. Remember The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel episode when Miriam got the hook for trying to joke about childbirth? Now comedians Amy Schumer and Ali Wong are all helping to bridge the gap of understanding for those who haven’t been through pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding in hilarious and approachable ways. Plus, pop culture references like the Gap nursing ad, the fierce Rachel McAdams pumping shot, and Beyoncé performing pregnant at the Grammys are shining a spotlight on the power of pregnant women and new mothers.

 

Don’t Mom-Bias Yourself

In many ways, I think working makes me a better mother and a better employee. I’m more productive while working and more present and appreciative of my kids when I’m at home. Try your best to limit any inner monologue that says you’re less dedicated, less qualified, or less committed to your job than your male colleagues or those without kids.

Shutting down small moments of mom-bias, even within ourselves, will only help create and support more family-friendly workplaces in the future.

 

Have you experienced mom-bias at work? Tell us how you handled it.

 

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