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The Unbearable Ambiguity of Job-Hunting While Pregnant

Navigating the interview process is stressful for anyone. For mothers-to-be, the journey is infinitely more fraught.

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Aug 1 2017, 3:13am

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Just a few weeks after losing her job at a non-profit organisation, Carla*, 36, discovered she was pregnant. Assuming that employers weren't clamouring to hire someone who would take extended leave after only a few months, she started sending out job applications with the intention of keeping her pregnancy hidden. "I was thinking that if I could get hired quickly enough, I could put in a few months and make a good impression before delivering the news," she reasoned.

Not only did this strategy have an expiration date—her belly was becoming obvious at 22 weeks—it also took an emotional toll. Just getting dressed for a job interview was emotionally grueling; the pants she wore to another interview just weeks before no longer fit, and none of her blazers would button. She finally managed to find an outfit that concealed her growing midsection, but still worried that her stomach was noticeable during the 30 seconds she stood up to shake the hiring manager's hand.

Having to actively pretend her pregnancy didn't exist even impacted the way she felt about being pregnant. "I was kind of rejecting, and not embracing, the pregnancy fully because I was so intent on hiding it professionally," she says.

Carla lives in New York, but her struggle is repeated in countries the world over: Searching for a job is always a bit fraught, but pregnant women must also wade through discrimination, uncertainty, nausea, and exhaustion. Planning future childcare becomes impossible without a salary. Hopes for parental leave become murky, with no indication when or where a job offer might come through.

Above all, pregnant women on the job market have one exasperating question: Does being pregnant make me altogether un-hireable?

While the exact number of pregnant women searching for jobs is unclear, evidence suggests that it's significant—and growing. In the US, three-quarters of women entering the workforce will become pregnant at least once while employed, and experts say that a healthy fraction of them will look for work during pregnancy. In the UK, where pregnancy discrimination is on the rise, 54,000 expectant and new mothers lost their jobs in 2015, putting many of them on the job market.

Women are understandably skittish about how the workplace views pregnancy: A 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 50 percent of mothers experienced workplace discrimination at some point during pregnancy, parental leave, or upon returning to work.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission notes in its anti-bias guidelines for employers that it has seen a rise in inquiries related to pregnancy discrimination. (It also notes this may be due to increasing awareness of workers' rights on the part of "workers, unions, employers, human resources specialists, and other groups.")

While laws in all four countries prohibit discrimination against pregnant women in the hiring process, experts say the problem persists regardless. Emily Martin, Vice President for Workplace Justice at the National Women's Law Center in Washington DC, says that pregnant job applicants all the way up the ladder—from hourly fast food workers, to executives—believe they are at a disadvantage.

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"As a job seeker you don't really have great insight into why an employer is turning you down. So while it's absolutely illegal to decline to hire you because you're pregnant, it can be really hard to know why you didn't get the callback," Martin says. "I don't think anyone wants to be job-hunting while pregnant."

Many women struggle with whether or not to disclose their pregnancies in the interview process. Each strategy has drawbacks: Jobseekers risk discrimination if they bring up a pregnancy early, and resentment if they break the news later on.

Sarah, 38, a video producer, says she wants to be up front with prospective employers, even after a recent experience that left her feeling burned. She walked into an interview, a follow-up, with the impression that she would be extended a job offer. But when she mentioned that she was pregnant with her second child, the mood dampened, and she was ultimately not offered the job.

Kendra*, 33, who lost her marketing job at a large US company when she was six months pregnant, also says that the tenor in interviews changed when she disclosed her pregnancy. She went on what she thought were two great interviews before telling the company that she was pregnant. The hiring manager's enthusiasm seemed to fade instantly. "First they said I had the exact skills they were looking for, then an assistant called me back to say they're moving on with other candidates," Kendra said. "It felt really weird."

A growing body of research suggests that these anecdotes point to broader bias, pitting mothers and pregnant women against entrenched emotions in the workplace.

A 2007 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology cites two studies in which people watched a tape of a woman doing work while wearing a pregnancy prosthesis, and without it. They assessed the apparently pregnant woman as "less competent and less suitable for a promotion," and were "less likely to recommend hiring her," even though she was doing identical work.

In another study, participants evaluated consultants based on their profiles, which noted gender and whether the candidate had children. The Harvard Business Review summarised, "When identified as a mother as opposed to a father or a woman or man whose parental status wasn't mentioned, the consultant was judged to be significantly less competent and was least likely to be hired or promoted by the participants."

The sense among pregnant women that they face barriers to employment makes it difficult to look for work in earnest. When Kendra lost her job, she had a four-year-old at home and no severance, so she filed for unemployment and started a dispirited hunt for work. "It felt ridiculous," she says of the job search classes she attended as a requirement of collecting unemployment. "Here I was, eight months pregnant, going to this orientation."

Martin advises that a woman who is not visibly pregnant has no reason to broach the topic during the interview process, since it should not be a factor in the employer's decision anyway. But for women who are already showing, she recommends being up front and talking to the employer about your plans for returning to work, and reiterating your commitment to do so.

Rachel*, 35, who lost her job in advertising at five months pregnant, says that all hope is not lost for mothers-to-be on the job market. She had declined a position shortly before losing her job, and quickly contacted the recruiter who had introduced her to the company she turned down. After advising the hiring manager of her pregnancy, she went on to have several more interviews at the company, and was ultimately offered the job.

"It was empowering to be hired while pregnant," she says. "Knowing that they were committing to me, now I'm invested in them." Rachel says the company was supportive throughout the pregnancy, from detailing its maternity leave policy early on to urging her to take three months off.

Still, many women wonder if there's any point in going to interviews once the pregnancy is obvious. They must make a personal calculation that factors in the chance of getting hired, potential income, desire for time with the baby, and anxiety about being out of the workforce for too long. "Knowing that your focus is not going to be on that [new job] in a few months, how much do you want to invest in it now?" Sarah wonders.

Carla, who will be decisively showing at an upcoming job interview, puts it more bluntly: "Am I just setting myself up for emotional torture?"

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