Study: Helping Pregnant Colleagues With Work Might Demoralize Them
Common courtesy dictates that we come to the aid of a pregnant woman — from giving up our seat on public transportation, to carrying a bag for her. But common courtesy is often subtly sexist, and when people follow through on such courteous instincts in the workplace and attempt to lighten the load of pregnant colleagues, it may, counterintuitively, make the colleagues less likely to return to work after maternity leave.
Researchers at Rice University, in the U.S. state of Texas, arrived at this conclusion after following 105 women throughout their pregnancies and for nine months after they gave birth. The women filled out weekly surveys on how often they experienced ‘helpful’ behavior from coworkers — such as being shielded from bad news, being given easier duties or having their workload lightened — and how such behaviors made them feel about their abilities.
Overall, whether the behavior was actually helpful or harmful to their productivity, women reported feeling worse about their work abilities as a result of these efforts. When women perceived the ‘helpful’ behavior as actually harming their personal productivity, they reported feeling even less confident.
And the worse women felt about their abilities, the less likely they were to return to work after maternity leave.
Related on The Swaddle:
It’s an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to the leaking pipeline of women in the workforce; the birth of a child is a natural exit point for most women, suggests the data: In India, women make up only 21% of the middle management and 19% of senior managers in the formal workforce, levels that typically coincide with the age at which many women give birth or have young children. Much has been said about the sexist messages at home that pull women out of the workforce, particularly once children come into the picture, but little has been said about the reinforcement of those messages at work.
And yet, the finding doesn’t seem that surprising. We have overwhelming evidence, now, that work-related practices aimed at retaining mothers in the formal workforce are Catch-22s that often backfire in the behavior they inspire. Flexitime has long been touted as a way to retain working mothers, but the policy often masks unintended ‘mommy tracking’: “Teams and managers assume she won’t be available at a moment’s notice, cannot travel, has competing priorities; in essence, she cannot be relied upon any longer for the truly demanding and time-sensitive work. While this forbearance might come from the best intentions of a manager, it begins a slow process of sidelining that is apparent to co-workers and junior staff,” The Swaddle reported in a 2016 article that explores how flexible work and part-time policies can actually hinder women’s workforce participation.
This suggests that what is really needed is an attitude change — from one that sees pregnancy as a special impairing circumstance that only women face to one that sees pregnancy as one, possibly difficult experience of many that employees and colleagues might face and that might require support. Only when we make our company policies — and our individual interactions — gender-blind, can we hope they’ll be encouraging rather than discouraging.