"It's simple biology."
I'm sure you've heard those words before, in one context or another. It's used to justify discrimination against every imaginable group: people of color, LGBT people, women, and on and on and on. It gets by on a dubious claim to scientific legitimacy; why, if it's biology, then it's an indisputable fact, and biologically speaking, X group is deficient in Y manner and that's why it's okay to discriminate against them en masse.
When it comes to the workplace, women, indisputably, are treated this way. It's simple biology, we hear over and over, that we're too emotional, less logical, more prone to getting upset, less proficient at data-driven fields, natural caregivers, and so on (never mind the actual data that invalidates these sexist stereotypes). But perhaps there is nothing thrown our way more invidious than discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.
I'm sure I need not remind you that pregnancy is a key part of the perpetuation of the human race, and concomitantly every single business and institution in existence. So you'd think it would be something human society valued, and it does to a point, at least inasmuch as it can be used to promote an image of docility and dependence, which is, perhaps, the problem. You see, even the merest possibility of pregnancy is enough to deter employers from hiring women in greater numbers.
And why's that? Because pregnancy is a lot of work. It means an employee who can't be tied to her desk, is going to need medical leave sooner rather than later, and might need some reasonable accommodations (like time and space to pump). So pregnant women get penalized during the hiring process; with employers making every kind of assumption about her job performance and commitment. But it doesn't stop there; married women face a motherhood penalty, too, regardless of whether they're actually pregnant, because they might get pregnant in the future. It's bad enough that common advice for women seeking jobs is to take off their ring.
It all makes the recent news about Google's alleged workplace hostility toward pregnant women far from surprising. The author of the memo paints a picture of hostile management, unresponsive HR, pressure to refuse maternity leave, and threats that a promotion could be denied if she did take maternity leave. It's even less surprising in the male-dominated bro-y culture of Silicon Valley that both nurtured Google and which the company itself now fuels.
At best, it's a kind of patriarchal benevolence; at worst, it's naked expectation that employees work grueling hours and give their entire lives to the company's bottom line. That means even the barest accommodations won't be offered, forcing women to choose between their health and their income at a time when finances are often extremely strained. It all ultimately boils down to employers doing the calculus of what can be extracted from a worker rather than how a worker might benefit and strengthen a team; the human dimension goes entirely unconsidered, and where pregnancy factors in, that attitude strikes a remarkably punitive tone. We are punished for even potentially being fertile.
Nobody reading this is likely to believe that workplace discrimination against women is rare or non-existent; we've all, in one form or another, lived that reality. I still recall how, as a newly-minted employee of a large French bank, fresh out of business school, my colleagues would expect me to make coffee, answer phones, and generally do secretarial work. I was so incensed, I went and started my own business almost out of spite. And while I worked to grow that business from a dorm-room startup into a major industry player with global reach, I learned quite a lot. Not only about how this kind of discrimination functions, but how it persists.
It ultimately comes down, as I've gone into at length elsewhere, to workplace cultures structured around a particular kind of employee. The modern workplace birthed after World War II assumes a prosperous, middle class man with a wife and children at home. She handles the domestic work and caregiving, freeing him to work long hours, socialize in bars, and travel as needed. In short, it's a workplace where employees must be unencumbered – and women not only have encumbrances, but are seen as encumbrances: burdens the rest of the team must carry, especially when she's in what they used to call "a family way."
There's a headline that's been meme-ified and made its way around the internet: "I Don't Know How To Explain To You That You Should Be A Good Person." It's a searing look at the callousness, dismissiveness, contempt, and cruelty of so much of American society, the ways in which we abuse each other, not just for our personal gain, but to salve our own pride and secure our own position. There is no easy way to stop pregnancy discrimination that doesn't involve asking people to recognize that their employees are human beings and not fixed costs against which profits are calculated. We can look at data, we can implement policies, we can explore how pregnancy does affect productivity and find ways to mitigate it, but all of that ignores the root human problem of not caring about the wellbeing of others.
I have a great deal of faith in the rising generations, who seem – seem – to have their heads a bit more together on what sort of world we live in and how we should treat each other. Perhaps having been raised in an age of such stark inequality, watching their parents, elder siblings, and friends struggle with realities that our economy simply can't cope with in a constructive way has taught them that fairness and equity go hand in hand, and the free market isn't really free if people are systematically restricted from participating in it. It's something I see every day in my own children and their peers: hope for the future.
And I hope I'm right to see it.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."