Although women have been active participants in the workforce for decades, pregnancy in the workplace has remained a challenge. Stereotypes persist about the ability of women to be productive workers while pregnant, with possible negative ramifications for the careers of expecting mothers. In an effort to try to control her image as both employee and mother-to-be, a pregnant woman may engage in “identity management” strategies to help lessen the negative stereotypes associated with pregnancy.
In the workplace, a worker’s professional image can act as organizational currency: it can help employees achieve social approval, opportunity for promotion, and career success. However, a negative professional image can do the opposite, leading employees to dead-end careers and missed opportunities for growth. A pregnancy announcement can damage a woman’s professional image, as stereotypes about pregnant employees suggest that women are less productive and committed to their jobs during pregnancy. After a woman discloses that she is pregnant, she may feel it is necessary to manage this new identity to reduce the negative images associated with being pregnant.
Managing Workplace Identities
In a recent multi-part study on pregnant employees, researchers used both interviews and surveys to understand how women managed their identities during pregnancy and to determine how the effects of these identity management strategies affected employee burnout and turnover (Little, Smith Major, Hinojosa, & Nelson, 2015).
The results showed that pregnant women are highly concerned with managing their workplace identities after disclosing their pregnancy. For example, women believed that perceptions of them had changed as a result of being pregnant. They then utilized a variety of strategies to help preserve their professional image.
Types of Identity Management Strategies
Two broad types of identity management strategies emerged from the interviews: proactively trying to demonstrate that they are still professionals (image maintenance) and trying to de-emphasize their pregnancy status (decategorization).
Of the women interviewed, more than 60% proactively managed their identity by maintaining the same pace of work that they had prior to being pregnant. The image maintenance strategies also included not asking supervisors for special accommodations, going “the extra mile” by working harder, and asking for shorter leave time than they were allowed, all in order to demonstrate their dedication and commitment to the organization.
In an effort to de-emphasize their pregnancies, more than one-third of participants tried to pass as non-pregnant by lying about their physical symptoms or wearing clothing that hid the signs of pregnancy. Others tried to avoid drawing attention to their pregnancy by downplaying their pregnant status. These women also avoided discussing their pregnancy with others inside the workplace.
Why Engage In Identity Management?
Women expressed many reasons for their reliance on identity management during their pregnancy. The four most common reasons included: proving that work ethic and dedication were unchanged, conveying a professional image, avoiding negative career consequences, and convincing others that they would not quit their jobs.
Do These Strategies Help?
A second study collected survey responses from pregnant employees to see how the use of identity management strategies affected employee outcomes such as pregnancy-related discrimination, burnout, and turnover. When women reported using the identity maintenance strategies (e.g., keeping the same pace of work, going the extra mile), they also reported reduced perceptions of discrimination and burnout and a higher likelihood of returning to work post-pregnancy. However, women did not experience positive results when they used decategorization strategies (e.g., trying to appear non-pregnant).
Practical Implications for Organizations
Women experience anxiety and stress related to managing their new identities as pregnant women in the workplace. However, the strategies that women use to manage their identities may have different outcomes, and some strategies are more useful than others. The results of this study show that women who try to proactively manage their pregnant identity have more positive outcomes than women who try to downplay their pregnancy status or pass as non-pregnant.
These results are very important for organizations. First, organizations need to know that pregnant employees are highly concerned about maintaining a professional image in the workplace. Helping women navigate their status as pregnant employees may help lessen this burden. For example, employers can explicitly state that women will not be penalized for being pregnant, can encourage women to utilize the benefits available to them (e.g., pregnancy leave), and can help arrange accommodations for pregnant women in the absence of an official request. Organizations that proactively help women balance being both employees and mothers-to-be foster committed employees who are more likely to return to the workplace post-pregnancy. These organizations will also avoid the legal ramifications related to pregnancy discrimination.