Reacting to pregnancy in the workplace and what that means for your company

As seen in the Huffington Post

With more and more women in the workforce, finding a high-performing and talented woman who easily meets the demands of a business is not a difficult task.  However, anyone of us who has worked in a corporate environment has seen the slow meltdown of a manager when a female star announced that she is pregnant.  Subtle reactions, such as a blank stare, less-than-enthusiastic congratulatory statement or concerning facial expressions do not go unnoticed to your female talent.  According to a study done on maternity leave policies and women’s employment across the US, Britain, and Japan, 46% of women in the US do not return to the same employer after delivering their first child.  With the median acquisition cost of a new employee equal to about 21% of an employee’s annual salary, female retention has become both a social concern and an economic issue.  Two of the most commonly blamed reasons why women leave their pre-baby employer are poor maternity leave policies and lack of flexibility.  Another reason that does not garner nearly as much attention is the lack of social support from supervisors and coworkers.  A study done by Jennifer Glass at the University of Iowa looked at determinants of job changing and labor force interruptions among employed women following childbirth. She found the degree of social support in the workplace was a main driver of a new mom returning to her pre-baby employer.

As a professional in this industry, I have counseled and interviewed many high-achieving women who have returned to the workforce after having given birth. While there are many reasons why new mothers might leave their job for another workplace, throughout my experience, I have found a few patterns in their reasoning. One client of mine reported after she announced her pregnancy to her boss at a large corporate office, he could barely get the word ‘congratulations’ out of his mouth before he asked questions related to how she would handle the workload once the baby was born – which wasn’t for another 6.5 months! After she came back to her desk and told her team, one of her colleague’s muffled, “Oh, you will never come back.” Both of these reactions were incredibly disappointing. This woman had put years into establishing a fantastic reputation at her company and now she felt that announcing her pregnancy put her on the list of women “not worth investing in.” One can argue that she overreacted, but a year after the baby was born, she left the firm to work for a competitor.

Bestselling author, Louann Brizendine, M.D. argues in her book The Female Brain: “women respond to the torn responsibilities of family and their own professional goals with increased stress, anxiety, and even reduced brainpower.” When a woman announces her pregnancy to her manager, she assesses his reaction carefully and draws conclusions as to how much support she will likely get in the subsequent months. Just like a first impression, if the manager’s response is negative, the expecting mother can start to feel overwhelmed. Most women that I’ve spoken with have already made up their minds about their future in the company well before delivery. When the lack of social support amongst managers and coworkers is present, new mothers tend to leave their pre-baby jobs. While many of my clients certainly argue that a lack of flexibility in the workplace contributes to their departure from the firm, I have found that if a woman feels that the birth of her baby is viewed in any way as an inconvenience, she is less likely to feel a sense of loyalty or obligation to stay with the same firm postpartum. On the other hand, I have found that if a new mother returns to work for the same company as before delivery and is able to stick it out a full year, she reports greater feelings of stability, happiness and overall satisfaction with work and family.

While certain inconveniences for managers do happen, companies have the ability to create an environment where a baby becomes a firm’s celebrated joy. One client of mine demonstrated a perfect example. After this woman announced her pregnancy to her manager, he bought her a beautiful flower arrangement and personally set it on her desk with a card congratulating her on the exciting news. I am not saying that all women can be bought with flowers, but I believe that a simple, yet profound gesture of kindness and compassion can demonstrate a manager’s support. This also sets the tone for the rest of the team. Her coworkers had to manage an extra workload during her maternity leave. There were no feelings of resentment or anger because her teammates were justly rewarded for being team players, which ultimately reflected in their performance reviews. This woman reported an incredible amount of stress during the first year of her daughter’s life. However, her manager and teammates were very supportive during the pregnancy and leave. She felt that she owed it to them to give her return a fair shot. Once a year had passed, she felt more confident, had gotten her groove back and was happy with her decision to return to her job. I would encourage managers to follow by this example and properly set the tone for how a pregnancy announcement is received by your company.

Ultimately, a small act of kindness towards an expecting mother can not only impact her and the team, it can help your company retain female talent.

Jena Booher