"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.
For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.
As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.
Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.
What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein
This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.
Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.
"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.
Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.
In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.
"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."