We've all heard the horror stories before. Moms-to-be who suddenly finding themselves pink-slipped, despite a thriving company and nothing short of stellar job performance. New mothers, passed over for well-deserved raises or promotions. Female execs who are told—in not so many words, or, actually, right to their face—that if she has a baby, she can kiss the corner office good-bye.
But in this day and age, is pregnancy discrimination in the workplace really that common?
Surprisingly (and sadly), yes—if you go by the number of women filing workplace discrimination suits. According to a recent report in the Harvard Business Review, the filing of "family responsibilities" lawsuits increased by almost 400 percent between 1998 and 2008. Since so many suits are settled out of court, it's not clear how many women are emerging victorious. However, in one settlement that is on the record, a female delivery driver won a $2.3 million verdict after her employer, a baked goods manufacturer, decided her pregnancy made her unqualified to do her job and refused to find her another position within the company.
The prejudice extends beyond pregnancy, into parenthood. In the Harvard Business Review investigation, researchers asked people to imagine they were clients of the business consulting firm McKinsey & Company, who needed to evaluate individual consultants on the basis of their profiles. Researchers varied profiles by only two factors: gender and whether the candidate had a child. There's no way around it, the findings are depressing: when identified as a mother—as opposed to a father, or a woman or a man with no mention of parental status, the consultant was judged to be significantly less competent and was also the least likely to be hired or promoted by the study participants.
Of course, there are legitimate cases where pregnancy can impact job performance. Some moms-to-be may need physical accommodations, such as a stool to sit on during their shift, or require reassigned tasks, especially if their job requires heavy lifting or working with certain chemicals. And being pregnant may mean taking more time off from work. A study found that moms-to-be in Norway take, on average, anywhere from 20 days to 16 weeks of sick leave due to pregnancy-related health reasons. In the US, where employee leave policies may not be as generous as in Norway, it's unknown how many sick days are due to pregnancy, though most of the moms we asked said they took few to none before their due dates.
Still, does all this add up to a legitimate reason to sideline, lay-off, or fire a pregnant employee?
When it comes to ending workplace stereotypes of pregnant women and new parents, there are no easy answers. Sure, there are select role models. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is also a proud mom of two who makes it home for dinner. (Ironically, early in her career Sandberg actually worked for McKinsey & Company). And who can forget Marissa Mayer, tapped to become Yahoo! CEO right as she celebrated the seven-month mark of her pregnancy?
But for the rest of us? Jenn Monroe, a Minnesota mom who works as a district manager for a large retail chain, says what helped her navigate a few sticky situations during her pregnancy was simple: confidence.
"There were a few times when I thought I was being given a less-then important task to complete because, 'Oh, she's pregnant, so this is all she can handle right now.' I never let these moments pass. I went right in and asked for extra work, more complicated roles, and bigger projects because I knew I could do them," she remembers.
In her case, the direct approach worked.
"When they threw me a baby shower at work, it was a multi-purpose party because I had just gotten promoted to district manager, with just days to go before my maternity leave started. It was a great feeling, and it all happened because I spoke up."