Remote Work Lets Moms-to-Be Act More Like Dads
For the past nine months, I have been pregnant. But I have not — for the most part — been pregnant at work.
In the beginning, when I felt nauseous, I threw up in my own bathroom. Saltine crackers became a constant companion but remained out of view of my Zoom camera. A couple of months later, I switched from jeans to leggings without any comment from my co-workers.
And as my baby grew from the size of a lemon to a grapefruit to a cantaloupe, the box through which my colleagues see me on video calls cropped out my basketball-sized gut.
Outside the virtual office, an airport security screener scolded me for trying to pick up a suitcase, cashiers became extra nice and strangers informed me of how big or small or wide or high my belly was.
But when I logged on to work remotely each morning, all mentions of my ballooning body and imminent life change abruptly stopped. Instead, I focused on, talked about and was asked about work.
I didn’t intentionally hide my pregnancy from a majority of my colleagues. It just didn’t often come up. Which, I imagine, is how things often work for expectant fathers.
For parents-to-be whose bodies don’t broadcast the pregnancy, it’s possible to share news of an arriving child with close colleagues but omit it at client meetings.
They can inform their bosses about their intentions to take parental leave months before telling co-workers who won’t be affected by their absence; they can casually mention at the end of happy hour that their baby is due in a week or give a presentation to a large group without first disclosing that they’ve chosen to expand their family. My husband told the team he manages that he would be taking parental leave at a weekly meeting during my second trimester.
If you’re the one who is pregnant, at a certain point you don’t have those options.
But that’s not the case with remote workers, a category that expanded to include more than 42 percent of employed Americans during the early days of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many pregnant women cannot work remotely, and those who do tend to feel lucky. Not going into a physical office means getting to skip a lot of awkward small talk (“So, will you be breastfeeding?”) and unexpected belly rubs.
It also means a chance to avoid a certain kind of seemingly well-intentioned but unwanted help from colleagues — like preemptively lightened workloads — that can make women feel suddenly less capable. This behavior is known as “benevolent sexism” in academic literature.
There isn’t a lot of incentive to awkwardly insert a pregnancy announcement into a work conference call: Passing pregnant women over for raises and promotions, or pushing them out of their jobs entirely, is both illegal and commonplace.
And research suggests that pregnant women tend to be seen as less competent, more needing of accommodation, and less committed to work as compared with women who don’t have children, said Eden King, a professor of psychology at Rice University who studies how pregnancy affects women in the workplace.
Similar stereotypes affect mothers — 63 percent of whom are working while their youngest child is under three, according to the Labor Department — but pregnancy is a more visible identity, said Ms. King. “It can be a very physical characteristic in a way that motherhood isn’t,” she said. “So some of those experiences and expectations may be exacerbated.”
In interviews with 10 pregnant or recently pregnant remote workers for this article, several women said that being visibly pregnant in real life but not on a work Zoom screen helped them feel more confident and less apprehensive about what parenthood might mean for their career. Christine Glandorf, who works in education technology and is due with her first child this month, said that like many professionals on the brink of parenthood, she worried that people’s expectations of her in the workplace could change. Remote work solves part of that equation.
“It’s nice that it’s literally not in people’s face in any way, shape or form unless I choose for it to be a part of the conversation,” she said.
Meg Rashkin, who works at a digital content agency, is due in late March with her second child. She hasn’t mentioned her pregnancy to her clients, which has allowed her to avoid awkward interactions that she experienced the first time around, like when a professional acquaintance asked if she’d been trying to get pregnant. “I can go into a client meeting and just talk about business, and I don’t have to say anything about my pregnancy to people I don’t know that well,” she said.
In a study published in the journal Personnel Psychology in 2020, Ms. King and her colleagues asked more than 100 pregnant women in a variety of industries to track how much their supervisors, without having been asked for help, did things like assign them less work so they wouldn’t be overwhelmed or protect them from unpleasant news.
Women who received more unwanted help reported feeling less capable at work, and they were more likely to want to quit nine months postpartum.
“The more you experienced those seemingly positive but actually benevolently sexist behaviors, the less you believed in yourself,” Ms. King said.
Credit…Margeaux Walter for The New York Times
Laura Little, an associate professor at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, began studying pregnancy in the workplace while she was working on her Ph.D. in organizational behavior, after noticing a change in how she was treated during her own two pregnancies. Fewer classmates and faculty included her in new projects, and some assumed she would take her career less seriously after becoming a mother, she said.
When she told one faculty member that she was pregnant with her second child, he told her she’d never get tenure. A study she conducted with colleagues, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2019, examined this apparent shift in treatment.
Pregnant women surveyed during several time periods in the study said they received less career encouragement, such as advice about how to navigate their organization, after they disclosed their pregnancies. Expectant fathers reported receiving slightly more encouragement after they revealed that they would become parents.
Ms. Little said that because of persistent, if outdated, gender norms, employers might have an attitude toward expecting fathers of, “‘You’re the breadwinner, and now you’re more serious — you’re going to become more serious because you’re having a baby,’” whereas women are more likely to be viewed as less serious about their careers once they disclose that they’ll become mothers.
Despite younger generations’ being more likely to say they believe women and men should be treated equally at work and at home, mothers in opposite-sex relationships still handle a majority of the housework and child care. The same pattern holds for parental leave. While almost half of men support the idea of paid paternity leave, fewer than five percent take more than two weeks.
In 2004, California began a paid family leave program that provides a portion of a new parent’s salary for up to eight weeks. Though the program offers the same benefit to both new fathers and new mothers, a 2016 study found that it increased the leave women took by almost five weeks and the leave that men took by two to three days.
That was the disparity when new fathers actually had an option to take paid paternity leave. Most don’t. Paid leave is still uncommon for both men and women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 23 percent of all private industry workers had access to parental leave, up from 11 percent 10 years earlier. Although the Department of Labor stopped differentiating between maternity and paternity leave in its data more than 25 years ago, other surveys suggest that paid leave is far more uncommon for fathers.
These inequalities are one reason the gender pay gap, even between spouses, widens after women have children.
The virtual office may be relatively new, but women have long thought about how to shape their colleagues’ perception of their pregnancies. In a 2015 study conducted by Ms. Little, researchers interviewed 35 women about their experience being pregnant at work.
About 80 percent of women brought up strategies such as hiding their bellies, working extra hard to prove they were dedicated or avoiding discussing their pregnancies. In most cases their goal was to be viewed as “the same” as before they were pregnant.
What has changed with the virtual office is that workers can downplay pregnancy more easily and for longer, and women have more control over when they inform their employers.
Ashlie Thomas decided not to mention that she was about 20 weeks pregnant while interviewing for a remote customer assistance job at a software company. “If they decided not to hire me, I didn’t want it to be based on my pregnancy,” she said.
After she got the job, Ms. Thomas waited until she was about seven months pregnant to tell her employer she would be taking leave and planned to tell her team a week before her delivery date. The late announcement, she said, would allow her to feel that, “I’ve demonstrated that I can do this job, and I’m capable, and now I’m comfortable sharing this with you.” But she never made it to the meeting where she planned to share her news. That morning, she gave birth to her son.
Not all women who have kept their pregnancies out of their video conference calls say they are afraid of discrimination. Some of the women I spoke with for this article felt that the news was too private to share widely or that they didn’t want to exacerbate their own anxiety about potentially losing the pregnancy.
Others thought bringing up their pregnancy would be a distraction to their work or were just happy to wear comfortable clothes and carry around a bottle of Tums without their co-workers watching.
Some women had also decided to reveal their pregnancy to their co-workers early on despite working remotely. Jacqueline Kim Perez, who works for a blockchain company, announced her pregnancy at a company meeting during the first trimester because she expected her colleagues to be supportive. (They were.)
Another woman who works as a recruiter — and asked not to be named because she hadn’t told most of her colleagues she is pregnant — disclosed the news to her boss earlier than she would have liked because she needed accommodations for a high-risk pregnancy. Despite reassurances, she was fearful of how he would react. Recruiting is a metrics-driven industry, she said, and her numbers are suffering because of fatigue and time away for doctors appointments, which she believes could negatively impact her career no matter what her boss says.
Giving a growing bump less visibility can’t compensate for an unsupportive organization, especially when pregnancy conflicts with a job, like when doctor appointments cut into billable hours or fatigue, nausea and other common pregnancy symptoms interfere with work responsibilities. And delaying a companywide announcement doesn’t mean women will face less bias once they become mothers.
Still, most of the women I interviewed agreed there was something nice about having the option to act more like expectant fathers when discussing their pregnancies at work. When I finally started to roll out my news to some colleagues during my third trimester, I enjoyed occasionally acknowledging my major life change during the work day, especially when it was literally kicking me in the ribs. At the same time, I was happy to have a choice when it came to how and when to bring it up.
As companies summon people back to the office, fewer people will have that choice. But there is part of the remote work pregnancy experience that can be replicated offline, Ms. King said.
“Some women do need help, and some women do want accommodations,” she said. But “you have to ask women what they want and what they need and not assume that we know.”