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Laura Little
Laura Little

Discrimination against pregnant workers has been much in the news lately, thanks in part to a greatly anticipated Supreme Court decision in March that seemed to split the difference between the rights of the female plaintiff and her corporate employer. With public discussion focused largely on how much accommodation pregnant employees are due, one might assume entitlement to be among these women's top priorities.

Yet, a major new paper on workplace pregnancy from a Terry College faculty member and others suggests closer to the opposite to be the case. The study does not seek to pass judgment on legal aspects of this issue or how it should play out in particular cases. At the same time, its surveys of hundreds of pregnant workers and in-depth interviews with more than two dozen others reveal that a great many, if not most, reject special treatment or accommodation for themselves.

In the words of the paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal, its findings "refute many of the stereotypes associated with pregnant workers. In all four [of the study's] samples pregnant women desired to be valued and to be seen as the same people they were before pregnancy. In some cases, they worked harder in order in order to maintain that image. The stereotype that pregnant women are not serious or committed workers did not apply to the women in our studies."

Before embarking on the research, the authors write, they tended "to believe that the monumental change of becoming pregnant would drive women's concerns regarding work. We discovered instead that most women claimed that their perceptions of themselves had not changed substantially during pregnancy -- rather...they tended to portray themselves as the eye in the center of a storm -- an island of relative normality in the midst of their bosses', coworkers' and clients' changing perceptions...As a result, many women perceived their pregnancies as a potential threat to their professional images, and, at times, even to their very jobs. Many women expressed a determination to counter these perceptions."

Adds a co-author of the study, Laura M. Little, director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement and assistant professor of management at Terry, "What we found, in an overwhelming way, was that the primary concerns were outwardly focused on their professional image and how they would be viewed at work...We were surprised at this -- surprised not that it was a concern but that it was the overriding concern."

Collaborating with Prof. Little on the study were Virginia Smith Major of The Connection Inc., Amanda S. Hinajosa of the University of Houston - Clear Lake, and Debra L. Nelson of Oklahoma State University.

They find that workers respond to overriding concern about their professional image in two principal ways -- by an action-oriented approach that the authors call "image maintenance" and by an avoidance strategy that they call "decategorization." The former most commonly entails maintaining the same pace of work, including the hours and level of output, that they managed before pregnancy and declining to ask supervisors or coworkers for special accommodations. In some cases it may even involve outdoing their prior performance ("going the extra mile," as the study puts it) or choosing to ask for shorter maternity leaves than they are entitled to take.

The avoidance strategy, decategorization, entails hiding the pregnancy, even continuing to do so beyond the first trimester, by wearing clothes that minimize the appearance of  bellies or lying about such physical symptoms as nausea or even refusing to acknowledge the pregnancy when asked. A less emphatic version of this strategy is downplaying pregnancy by such means as avoiding discussion of it or steering the conversation away from it.

While the two strategies are not mutually exclusive, they are quite distinct, and interviews did not suggest that job status influences the use of one or the other. Where the two approaches are critically different is in their effect on three major career aspects probed by the study -- perceived discrimination, burnout, and likelihood of returning to work postpartum. While decategorization fails to have a significant effect on any of these, the action-oriented strategy of image maintenance affects all three, reducing burnout and the sense of being discriminated against and increasing the likelihood of returning to work.

Not only did pregnant workers themselves benefit from image maintenance, the authors observe but "organizations also benefited because these behaviors increased the likelihood of these women returning to work." Meanwhile, "the good news for women who engage in avoidance strategies is that, counter to our hypotheses, decategorization did not worsen workplace outcomes. The bad news is that it also did not improve these outcomes."

The study builds on in-depth interviews averaging 90 minutes that Ms. Major conducted as a doctoral candidate with 35 pregnant workers in a wide variety of jobs, low status and high status alike. Twenty-eight, or 80%, indicated that their professional image was a major concern of their pregnancy and spelled out the reasons for this concern and their approaches to dealing with it. The four co-authors then proceeded to put flesh on the bare bones of the concepts that emerged from these interviews through a series of surveys with pregnant employees. A survey of 199, recruited through pregnancy blogs, enabled the researchers to develop scales to gauge the workers' motives and strategies; a second survey of 174 tested the validity of measures; and a final two-stage survey of 200 assessed the effect of the women's strategies on burnout, perceived discrimination, and likelihood of returning to work.

While the study's findings suggest large-scale success among working women in meeting the challenges of pregnancy, the authors reject any notion that the overall situation is satisfactory. Comments Prof. Little: "Women may be holding their own, but the fact that 80% of our interviewees saw a threat to their professional identity in their workplaces suggests that companies have a way to go in doing right by pregnant workers." 

Further, the authors note that, notwithstanding the importance of the measures of success employed in the study, they are not comprehensive. "Women who devote a considerable time to the successful management of their professional images may do so at the expense of their personal lives. In addition, going the extra mile may have adverse health outcomes for the pregnant woman or the baby....A few interviewees wondered if they had pushed themselves too hard in their efforts to prove themselves to supervisors and others. One respondent was put on bed rest for hypertension, and another, who had a high-risk pregnancy, chose not to follow her doctor’s orders to reduce her hours at work."

The researchers conclude with a reminder and brief counsel. Pregnant workers, they reiterate, "spoke passionately of the importance they placed on maintaining their images, doing a good job, and being dependable and professional... The key question for employers and organizations should not be whether women's priorities will shift during pregnancy but how best to respond to women's concerns about others' changing views."

The paper, “Professional Image Maintenance: How Women Navigate Pregnancy in the Workplace," is in the February/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching.