Pregnancy and work: a problem

Laetitia@Work #39

Hi everyone,

I hated being pregnant. I hated it so much I decided after two pregnancies that I wouldn’t have another child (although I would have wanted other children). It’s not just the pregnancies per se that were painful to me, but everything that surrounded them: the series of prohibitions and taboos, the way I was treated by other people, the way I was infantilised and made to feel guilty for everything I did and didn’t do, and the way I was silenced into submission. 

You basically have no right to complain about anything, because every “little discomfort” is “natural” and every deprivation is “for a good cause”. Plus there are other people who’d like children and can’t have them, so how dare you complain about vomiting, back pain, leg pain, stomach pain, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, psychosis, lack of sleep, and exhaustion? You just don’t deserve to be a mother! By the way, taken in isolation, each of these symptoms would be taken very seriously in a non-pregnant person.

Some feminists ignore the subject because they see pregnancy as something alienating that a free and ambitious woman should simply avoid. Others because they are ill-at-ease with the “essentialisation” of the female body that comes with the subject. Career women prefer to avoid mentioning it because it will be used against them: they prefer to pretend that, at work, they don’t have a body (or they are strong enough to ignore it). Others talk about it as something blissful that should just be celebrated. But I couldn’t identify with any of these groups!

I did and I do talk about it quite often, but most of the time I have faced misunderstanding and disapproval and all these injunctions that present pregnancy (and all aspects of motherhood) as necessarily blissful. The truth is, it’s a hormonal lottery. A few women love it (good for them!). Most of them do not but feel like they can’t say anything about it. It’s high time this taboo was broken, including at work. 

That’s why I was extremely happy to read a French book titled Trois mois sous silence (“Three Months in silence”) that deals with the taboo of women in early pregnancy. Today I’d like to share a few thoughts about pregnancy and work👇💡

Pregnancy and work: a problem

Pregnancy and work are words that do not go well together. It’s true that most European countries created systems to protect women against discrimination and provide future mothers with some support. Paid maternity leaves are the norm in France: pregnant women are guaranteed 16 weeks of paid leave (but note that it’s never 100% of their salaries!) and healthcare is covered. They never have to go into debt for enduring a C-section!

To US ears this may seem like perfection: paid healthcare, no debt and a paid leave! And then you have access to childcare? What could you possibly have to complain about? Well, a lot actually. It’s little consolation that US pregnant workers have no benefits whatsoever and that the only right they have is that of not being fired by their employers (and they only acquired that right under President Clinton less than 3 decades ago!!!) 

I recently interviewed writer Deborah Copaken who told me that her whole career—the jobs she picked and the fact that she worked part-time for a few years—all that was entirely, solely determined by the lack of affordable healthcare and childcare in the US. For her pregnancies (and deliveries) she was in debt for many years, which again forced her to make certain professional choices. Her childbirth debts were paid off only when her children became adults…but then came new college debts.

Listen to my Building Bridges conversation with Deborah Copaken 👉 No feminism without healthcare 🎧

But the same way American feminists won’t stop fighting for more equality just because Saudi or Indian women have it worse, European women have a lot on their plate too. They have so many battles to fight related to pregnancy. The medical system infantilises and abuses them. Their pain is never heard. Their employers sideline them. Their professional lives will take a hit they will never recover from. Many of them will start working part-time and be guaranteed a meagre pension in old age. To add insult to injury there are so many taboos, social pressures and codes of silence that they have to put up with. Miscarriage is a case in point.

All this is "women's stuff" for which there is no social recognition, and which companies do not make room for. At work, women are not supposed to have a woman's body. They are afraid to announce their pregnancy for fear of being sidelined. And right they are! Even “good” bosses will sometimes blame them for their “betrayal”.

A shocking 77% of women experience unfavourable treatment at work during pregnancy or maternity leave, yet very few end up confronting their employers. Pregnancy discrimination is multifaceted, often insidious, and can have far-reaching consequences on a woman’s career development and mental health. (Welcome to the Jungle)

Three months in silence: women in early pregnancy

Judith Aquien’s book (Trois mois sous silence) is a must-read that focuses on the condition of women in early pregnancy. For 85% of women, the first three months of pregnancy are in some ways a physical and psychological hell: nausea, extreme fatigue, depression, anxiety about miscarriage, and miscarriages in 20% of cases. Miscarriage is that "mourning without recognition nor ritual" that one must endure in silence.

While the beginning of pregnancy is marked by the permanent insecurity of a body that is getting ready to welcome life, pregnant women are not allowed to reveal anything about their condition: they are invited to suffer in silence, at work and at home, to just keep quiet about the whole thing.

Judith's book denounces the silencing of pregnant women and the failure of the medical sector (and French social security) to take better charge of early pregnancy. In the world of work too, the beginning of pregnancy won’t be socially "validated". Judith mentions the fact that pregnant women spend their time hiding in the toilets at work: to vomit or to take naps there.

The silence surrounding early pregnancy is associated with many taboos, including that of miscarriage. If this taboo were to be broken, women could find more support at the beginning of their pregnancy from their colleagues, their relatives... whether things go well or end badly. Why the silence? She asks. And why the violence? 

Isn’t it time miscarriages were seen for what they are? A personal tragedy that requires ritual and mourning, not “some banal incident that happens all the time” as she was told by doctors. After all, death too is the most common thing. It happens to 100% of people. Yet when someone loses a parent, it wouldn’t occur to you to say “it happens all the time, it’s no big deal.” You’ll say, “I’m sorry for your loss”

Caregiving, miscarriages: the new frontier of employment perks

Of course, corporate engagement on the subject of parenting and caregiving began long before the pandemic. But with the pandemic, things have accelerated. The period has brought gender inequalities into sharper focus, as well as the specific barriers mothers face in the workplace. In the US, more than two million mothers were forced to leave their full-time jobs to care for children at home. Some have switched to part-time work. Others stopped working altogether.

👉 See “2020: a She-cession?”Laetitia@Work #21

Today, growth is picking up in many sectors and companies are recruiting again. But the female employment rate remains lower than it was in February 2020. Debates on the diversity of human resources remain all-pervasive. Access to childcare remains insufficient. So many companies are beginning to see parenthood as the new frontier of employment perks. They understand that for employees, few things are more important. And that to be able to recruit a more diverse workforce, they have to take parenting into account.

A few months after the New Zealand government announced the creation of a paid leave after a miscarriage, several British companies, including Channel 4 media and banking startup Monzo, announced they were offering their own version of the pregnancy loss leave. It's a safe bet that US digital companies will follow suit. After egg freezing, breast milk shipping, and flying nannies, 'miscarriage leaves' could be the new benefit to highlight your virtues as an employer.

This year's Great Place to Work ranking rewarded the companies that best supported parents and carers. Cisco offered its employees access to a digital platform called Wellthy that helps them care for their loved ones. Zillow instituted a four-hour daily 'core' block of time to collaborate with colleagues: for employees spread across multiple time zones, this is intended to confine internal Zoom meetings to just one part of the working day, which is particularly welcome for employees who have family responsibilities and need more flexibility in their work schedule. 

One theme that emerged among this year's honorees? How companies supported caregivers—and, especially, women—through a period of unprecedented caregiving burdens. From No. 14 Target, which introduced an unlimited backup care benefit, to No. 1 Cisco, which offered employees the use of a digital care coordination platform called Wellthy, employers came up with innovative solutions. (Fortune)

Is that going to be enough?

Sorry to disappoint but a few companies offering perks is not going to cut it. For parents, the most important thing would be for our work culture to allow for a good work-life balance, for employers not to impose a workload that’s incompatible with family life. Work should be organised in such a way that employees are autonomous and responsible, that they do not need to be in the office all week from morning to night. But these things are rarely part of the benefits promoted in a world where overwork remains the norm.

Furthermore several of these benefits, like egg freezing, breast milk shipping and flying nannies may be generous but they all convey an unambiguous message: whatever you do, don't ever stop working. Moreover, in this culture of overwork where parenthood remains taboo, it is likely that many employees will not even claim the benefits on offer. Wherever pregnant women are sidelined, they are not likely to ask for a 'miscarriage leave', because that would involve telling their bosses about their maternity project. 

Similarly, in companies where overwork is valued, the perk of 'unlimited holidays' is totally useless: employees actually only ask for a few days off every year because peer pressure and overwork culture are too strong. In France, there are no “unlimited holidays” but everybody gets at least five (paid) weeks off every year!

As long as the subject of parenthood at work is seen as a private matter that only a few forward-thinking companies will take up to make life easier for their employees, then culture won’t move in the right direction. When it comes to parenting, there are extreme inequalities between countries and employment situations. In the US, most companies offer absolutely nothing to their employees and no public system has been set up to provide paid parental leave or access to childcare. 

Today, companies should be encouraged to campaign with their employees for universal parental leave and an end to a work culture that does not allow for anything other than work. Fortunately, some of these issues seem to be on the agenda of the Biden administration. But there’s so much work left to compensate for several centuries of intense misogyny.

Pregnancy isn’t an anecdotal subject. It generally marks the beginning of deep gender inequalities. We need to talk about it more. Discrimination at work ought to be fought a lot harder. And the safety net ought to be expanded significantly. Yesterday, I read this great piece in The Guardian where I found this quote which sums it all up nicely:

Worldwide, mothers are overworked, underpaid, often lonely and made to feel guilty about everything from epidurals to bottle feeding. Fixing this is the unfinished work of feminism.

🚀 For Nouveau Départ, Nicolas and I recorded many new podcasts, among which: Travailleurs / entreprises : la distance se creuseAprès Merkel : une chancelière verte ?La femme préhistorique gagne à être connueNomadisme en famille : pas si facile !, Basecamp et la politique au travail, Qu'est-ce que la culture d'entreprise ?, Télétravail : le bon environnement

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: Harcèlement : 5 pratiques toxiques du travail à distanceÉgalité au travail : l'homme (préhistorique) est une femme comme les autres, Recrutement & gestion des talents : bienvenue dans la "YOLO economy"Comment la surconsommation nuit (aussi) au monde du travail

🎙️ I participated in a few podcasts, among which Sophie Wade’s great future of work podcast (The unbundling and rebundling of jobs in the future of work, in English), and a new French podcast about the future of work called Génération Alpha (RH : en 2050, quel avenir pour le travail et nos métiers ?, in French) 🎧

✍️ I wrote a piece for Institut Montaigne: Vivre au temps du télétravail : la nouvelle machine à café peut-elle être virtuelle ? ; also in English: Working From Home: Can the New Water Cooler Be Virtual?

🎙️ There are 4 new Building Bridges podcasts! Around Europe (and the world) with Tyler Cowan, No Feminism without Healthcare with Deborah CopakenTechnology with Chinese Characteristics with Lillian Li, How Innovation Works with Anton Howes 🎧  Subscribe to Building Bridges.

📺 My next “Café Freelance” event with Coworkees is about freelancing and boosting your online visibility with great content 🇫🇷 My panel will feature fellow newsletter writer Noémie Aubron, and podcaster Sandra Fillaudeau! Join us on May 27 at 9:30 CET!

Miscellaneous

💀 Meet the Nun Who Wants You to Remember You Will Die, Ruth Graham, The New York Times, May 2021: “Mindfulness of death is a tradition within Buddhism, and Socrates and Seneca were among the early thinkers who recommended “practicing” death as a way to cultivate meaning and focus. Skeletons, clocks and decaying food are recurring motifs in art history.”

👨‍👨‍👦 Why We Speak More Weirdly at Home, Kathryn Hymes, The Atlantic, May 2021: “Many of us have a secret language, the private lexicon of our home life (…) Sometimes known as familects, these invented words, pet names, in-jokes, and personal memes swirl and emerge from the mess of lives spent in close quarters. During the pandemic, we’ve spent dramatically more time in those quarters, and our in-group slang has changed accordingly.”

👵 Why Having Friends of Different Ages Matters — And How It Can Impact an Ageist Society, Elizabeth Bennett, Sunday Edit, April 2021: “Intergenerational friendships are a dual win — both for society and the individual (…) As a society, friendships across ages build community and empathy. Studies have shown that mixing with different groups helps to break down stereotypes and decreases issues such as ageism. For the individual, there are opportunities for both parties to gain a fresh perspective and grow.”

I want to send all my love to all the pregnant women out there 💌 (and to those trying to get pregnant and to those who’ve just given birth) 🤗