Policy isn’t enough to
avoid pregnancy discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination is back in the headlines after a published news report contradicted US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s story of losing her position as an elementary teacher shortly after announcing her first pregnancy. Official records, the article explains, stated she was offered a contract for the following year. No mention was made of her pregnancy or her dismissal.

That’s because pregnancy discrimination, like many forms of discrimination, is rarely, if ever, recorded as such. The Canadian Human Rights Act explicitly protects women from pregnancy-related discrimination, as all forms of gender discrimination, in the workplace. Yet, that doesn’t deny the on-the-ground realities many Canadian pregnant women experience at work.

A survey from Canada’s Equality and Human Rights Commission reports one in nine mothers were either dismissed, made redundant or treated so poorly they felt forced out of their jobs. More commonly, however, pregnancy discrimination at work is much more subtle. As such, it takes shape in a multitude of forms: bias in hiring pregnant or young women, or overlooking pregnant women for promotions or plum assignments. One in five women, in the same survey as above, claimed this more subtle variety of pregnancy discrimination. They reported being harassed and/or receiving negative comments from managers and/or colleagues about their pregnancy or the accommodations they were being afforded as a result (as granted under the Human Rights Act). What’s more 10% of mothers said their managers discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments.

Both overt and subtle forms of pregnancy discrimination, which can extend into parental leave and as new parents return to work, has insidious effects to the individual’s well-being and mental health. It also impacts their job performance, limits their ability to fully contribute to their team, and because of our human fight-or-flight instinct, gets them thinking about quitting.


The cascade effect

It’s important to note: it’s not only the pregnant employee affected by pregnancy discrimination.

Like any element of corporate culture, there is a cascade effect. Just as good leadership is contagious, so too, are negative behaviours, attitudes, outlooks, and levels of satisfaction and confidence among and between employees. If one employee can no longer see a long-term career at their company because they’re pregnant or a new parent, it’s likely others will wonder what will happen to them when they choose to start a family. All of which doesn’t bode well for employee retention.


Beyond policy

Avoiding pregnancy discrimination begins with the right values, policies and programs that prevent discrimination from happening in the first place. Ensuring accommodations for pregnant employees, and anti-harassment and parental leave policies are all great starts, but they’re not nearly enough.

Pregnancy discrimination in Canada – as elsewhere in the world – has been reported in almost every industry. It has also affected companies of all sizes from small businesses all the way through to large corporations – even the ones that espouse progressive cultures.


It’s on managers

Truly inclusive cultures are only brought to life by the examples set by leaders and managers in their daily interactions on the ground with their employees. They are the models that set the standards for others to follow. With that said, it’s essential to train your leaders – especially your people managers.

A step-by-step guide is beyond the scope of this article, but you’ll want to be sure they’re aware of company policies and programs in support of expecting employees, what behaviours constitute discrimination and harassment, how to handle sensitive situations with compassion, and how to ensure others on the team abide by the ground rules as well.

In the meantime, here are three approaches people managers should adopt when an employee announces their pregnancy:

1. Be flexible

Managers are expected to adhere to the company’s policies and practices. Yet, sometimes, a little flexibility is needed to ensure your employee’s health needs are met. For example, if it’s not possible for your pregnant employee to make her antenatal appointments outside of business hours, as company policy may require, look for a solution that works for everyone. Shift her hours to later or earlier in the day, move meetings to a different time, or encourage her to work remotely on appointment days.

2. Be curious

Bias – especially maternal bias – is often based on the assumptions we make about situations and people. Mostly, the process is done unconsciously in the background of our minds. A quick way to break this cycle is to ask questions, and more importantly, listen to the answers. Don’t assume she’s ready to share her pregnancy news with her colleagues and clients. Instead, ask how she’d like to handle the announcement. Take time to discuss her career goals, aspirations and plans so she’s not overlooked for future promotions or opportunities.

3. Be collaborative

Pregnancy brings with it a good number of To Do’s that can be overwhelming for you as a manager. This can also be an isolating and demotivating time for pregnant employees who may be left out of key decisions. To avoid these pitfalls, engage your pregnant employee in this work. For example, collaborate together (and with others on the team, too) when interviewing and onboarding the new hire who will cover the parental leave. Not only are you more likely to bring on the right skillsets for the job, you also encourage a more seamless transition of work ahead of parental leave. Plus, by being an active part of the process, you’ll boost morale and build trust with your pregnant employee.


Finally, if you spot pregnancy discrimination or harassment in action –  be it overt or subtle in its approach – take action immediately. It’s not worth losing the trust of your pregnant employee, others on the team, or experiencing the public fallout that comes with exposure or a court case.

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