Maternity Discrimination is killing women's careers
She was told that she was welcome to apply for the advertisement being put out for her own job.
"I decided to pass on this golden opportunity.", she says.
I want to begin by thanking you. I launched this newsletter a week ago. And I have to say, the love and subscriptions you sent my way were the cherry on top of the birthday cake of a day I was already having.
I also have to admit that I spent the rest of the week in absolute terror. What could I send today that would be half-worthy of your time and readership?
I decided to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start: Babies.
Most new parents you know probably posted on your social media timeline about the ‘bundle of joy’ that has entered their lives. As joyful as babies are, it is seldom acknowledged that their arrival also turns your life upside down.
But even while these bundles are restricting their joy and chaos inside the womb, the mother starts feeling an impact outside.
This is the story of two expecting mothers - Akanksha and Nina.
Soon after she found out she was pregnant, Akanksha (name changed) landed a contractual position in the content team of a social organization. She was never asked the question, and it didn’t occur to her to bring up her pregnancy in her job interview because she was just a few weeks along and had not even shared the news with extended family yet.
A few days after joining the firm, she mentioned her pregnancy to a woman she met at work who was also expecting. Akanksha thought the conversation was private, but soon enough, the "good news" spread through the grapevine, and colleagues started lining up to congratulate her. Before long, the news reached the organization’s management.
Her boss summoned her, duly congratulated her, but expressed disappointment that the news had not come directly from her. Akanksha clarified that she had not meant to make a formal announcement to the office - only shared with a fellow expecting mother - but apologized nonetheless for the way things had panned out.
The boss asked how far along she was, did some quick math, and asked, "So this means you were pregnant at the time of your interview?"
"Yes", Akanksha replied.
"Why didn't you tell us then?"
"Because you never asked me this question... Besides the position is a desk job, so I do not see my pregnancy affecting my performance in any way."
"I wish you had told us at that time."
"Does this mean that if I had mentioned during the interview that I was pregnant, the outcome of the interview would have been different?", Akanksha ventured.
The word rang in her ears for several days.
Nina (name changed) is a senior lawyer. Nina had always led her team with some serious workaholism, putting in long hours and working weekends. She worked on cases that regularly made the front page news. Her exceptional caliber and work ethic was highly respected among colleagues as well as clients.
At this peak of her career, she discovered that she was expecting. The pregnancy was a surprise but Nina and her husband were thrilled nonetheless.
On the professional front, however, she began experiencing some changes almost as soon as she made the news public. Clients she had worked with for years suddenly seemed unsure about working with her now that she was pregnant. Her work involved dealing with aggressive clients, who expected their lawyers to be just as aggressive. So far, Nina had had no problems keeping up. However, she now worried about looking like the "meek pregnant woman at the table".
"Would they think having me as a lawyer will make them look weak?", she would wonder.
A few days after the “maybe” bomb was dropped on her, Akanksha received her formal job contract. Her heart sank on reading that the term of her contract - originally agreed to be one year and extendable - had now been cut short to three months. She knew this was a direct result of her pregnancy, but resolved to work so hard that the firm would have no option but to renew her contract for a longer-term.
Her troubles were only beginning. Once she signed the contract, she was allocated a desk on the only floor of the office that did not have any toilet. Since pregnant women need to use the toilet very often, she realized this was another targeted move to make her life as uncomfortable as possible. To make matters worse, she was diagnosed with a low placenta pregnancy, which meant she was advised restricted movement.
Every day was agonizing but Akanksha felt a need to prove that she could indeed do the job she signed up for, no matter how much agony was sent her way. She kept turning in work of exceptional quality and, sure enough, her contract kept getting extended month after month.
Nina was facing no smooth sailing either. She experienced bleeding in her first trimester, which left her alarmed even though the baby was safe. She was grateful to her colleagues who supported her through this time, almost like an extended family. But the pregnancy required her to do things at work she had never imagined before. Her body was so exhausted that she was often forced to take naps in the middle of the day. Her biggest nightmare was the thought of a client walking in on her, asleep at her desk.
Nina observes that if a man was unwell - or even just hungover after a night of partying - and was caught napping at work, clients would laugh it off as a joke. But if a pregnant woman is seen doing the same thing, it doesn't take long for everyone to conclude that the pregnancy is making her unreliable and unprofessional.
Akanksha was running on a perennial sleep deficit too, as her boss kept sending her assignments to be done in the evenings and over weekends. Taking a nap at her desk was a chance she could not take, given the hostile environment at work. She would sleep for half an hour in the washroom, sitting on a toilet, just to get through the day.
In the face of her undeterred work ethic, her boss decided to further up the ante. She was asked to interview a Bollywood star at a late-night fundraising event, and to come back to office and upload her report overnight. She gently suggested at the next staff meeting that another colleague be considered for the assignment.
"This seemed to be the window of opportunity my boss had been waiting for. I was humiliated in front of all my colleagues and called ungrateful for passing on this 'golden opportunity' which was being handed to me on a platter", Akanksha recalls.
Concerned colleagues came to check on her after the meeting, in case she was in tears.
Nina began to notice that she had started losing some clients during her pregnancy. Nobody said anything, but it was obvious that they saw her situation as a limitation. She would proactively have an open conversation about her hours or her upcoming maternity leave with any client who expressed concerns. But there was nothing she could do about the clients who moved solely because of their preconceived notions about working with a pregnant woman or a new mother.
One client who left without a word of explanation was later overheard saying, “I believe the term 'working mother' is an oxymoron.”
Both Akansha and Nina worked till the 8th month of their pregnancy, delivering excellent quality work.
Nina came back from her maternity leave to continue working with the same dedication to her clients, most of whom were happy to resume working with her.
She says that this experience changed her perspective on working mothers, "They are doing the toughest job in the world, on top of the job everyone else is doing at work."
Akanksha's contract was not renewed after her 8th month. She was told that she was welcome to apply for the advertisement being put out for her own job.
"I decided to pass on this golden opportunity.", she says.
What the law says (and what it doesn’t)
Today, Nina’s son is 1.5 years old, and Akanksha's daughter is about to turn 15. Why is it that workplace discrimination against pregnant women has remained unchanged in a decade and a half, even for supposedly privileged women like them?
The US has a Pregnancy Discrimination Act that bars businesses from discriminating against pregnant workers, including interview questions about their plans to get pregnant. India's equivalent law is the Maternity Benefits Act, which offers one of the longest maternity leaves in the world (6 months), but is silent on the kind of subtle discrimination Nina and Akanksha faced.
Even as our laws play catch-up to reality, I believe hope lies in having more allies and women in leadership positions. Like Saloni.
“None of our business”
Saloni (name changed) is an entrepreneur, an IIM graduate, a mother of two, and a boss her employees are lucky to have. Saloni is no stranger to discrimination against working mothers.
"The moment my clients hear that I have kids, their number one concern becomes who takes care of my kids when I am at work. Do I have a nanny? Are my in-laws with the kids? Are they at a daycare? I get asked these questions almost on a daily basis. Interestingly, my husband has not once been asked this question in his entire career."
Saloni recalls the time she overheard a colleague asking a female applicant over a telephonic interview if she was planning to start a family soon. After the call, she hauled him up and asked him if he had ever asked a man the same question during a job interview.
"As long as she is competent and committed to the job, a candidate’s personal life is none of our business", she firmly told him.
Saloni says that in the absence of a law, the responsibility of fostering a positive culture falls on each organization.
Telling stories of women like Akanksha, Angha and Saloni definitely seemed like a good starting point to me.
Recommendation of the week
I recently started reading (and already love) the book 'Invisible Women' by Caroline Criado Perez. Thank you, Sukhada, for the recommendation!
I want to share with you this amazing coincidence - I read this gem of a quote in the book right after drafting Nina's story:
"The term 'working woman' is a tautology. There is no such thing as a woman who does not work. There are only women who are not paid for the work they do."
Turns out, the only (oxy)moron is a 'human being' who refuses to see this.
Take care, favourite person!
Until next week,
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Well written..I think we all see these scenarios or similar ones at work. Hopefully having more women in top level management positions will help change the environment!
Fabulously written. I have myself been asked the family plans questions while interviewing for jobs about 10 years back. I think it does indeed fall on us to make a difference in our own way. At a recent talk on an unrelated topic, but linked in a sense of being inclusive, I loved the small action suggested, have a dialogue about this issue with 2-3 people who wouldn't know this side of the story and who you would normally avoid speaking about this to. I intend to do exactly that. Till next Friday!