4min readCareer 09 August 2019
"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.
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