Have Women Hidden Pregnancies In The Workplace? It's A Surprisingly Common Practice

There are lots of reasons that a person might choose to hide their pregnancy. The wisdom of waiting until the 12-week mark in case of a miscarriage is one major reason couples might not share the news right away. But what about when a woman feels like she has to hide her pregnancy? Have women hidden pregnancies in the workplace? Throughout history, they have — and it's still a surprisingly common practice.

The American workplace isn't exactly the most supportive environment for a pregnant woman. The United Nations’ International Labour Organization reported that there are only two nations in the world that don't offer new moms some kind of legally-protected pay after they have a baby: one is Papua New Guinea and the other is the United States.

Some companies have fired women who become pregnant, failed to promote them or actively demoted them, or even refused to hire them in the first place because of their reproductive status. This workplace discrimination has been problematic for women for decades, and in 1978 the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed to supposedly prohibit discrimination based on pregnancy; though, it only applies to employers with more than 15 employees.

Last year, the act came into question in a Supreme Court case between the U.S. Postal Service and a woman named Peggy Young. Young was employed as a postal worker, but during her pregnancy was told by her doctor not to lift more than 20 pounds; 50 pound shy of the required 70 pounds postal workers had to lift. She was, therefore, deemed unable to perform her job and forced to stay home, unpaid — which included losing her health insurance — until she gave birth. She sued the U.S. Postal Service, claiming that they failed to reasonably accommodate her pregnancy and, in fact, discriminated against her due to the fact that she was pregnant.

Young's case was vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court, which means it was basically sent back to the lower courts because they didn't reach a decision, and they believe an entirely new trial should be started. The burden of proof for the discrimination was ultimately on Young — and often times, when women file a discrimination claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if they can't prove (often times through recorded video or audio) that the discrimination occurred, their case is thrown out for lack of evidence. In 2010, more than 6,000 cases of pregnancy discrimination were filed.

Pregnant Women Have Been Called Unfit For Work Throughout History

Even before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act there was another landmark Supreme Court decision that paved the way for working moms in America: in 1908, a case known as Mueller v. Oregon ruled that women could only work 10-hour days, because they had duties to attend to at home. In the state of Oregon, a man named Curt Mueller was fined $10 for making one of his female employers work more than the sanctioned 10 hours per day. He appealed to the Supreme Court of Oregon first, then to the U.S. Supreme Court, who upheld the ruling. It might seem like the ruling was in favor of the female employee, who was being forced to work a longer day than was legal at the time, but the logic behind the ruling actually further justified the pervasive sexism that dominated society:

That woman's physical structure and the performance of maternal functions place her at a disadvantage in the struggle for subsistence is obvious. This is especially true when the burdens of motherhood are upon her. Even when they are not, by abundant testimony of the medical fraternity continuance for a long time on her feet at work, repeating this from day to day, tends to injurious effects upon the body, and as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race.

It's also important to note that this law only applied to white women. Women of color, those who worked in agriculture, or women who were educated were left out of the 10-hour workday law. Equal rights activists of the era thought the ruling upheld a dangerous precedent that a woman's priority should always be family, regardless of her ability or desire to work.

Indeed, it may have contributed to the ongoing workplace discrimination for women, which was perhaps no more overt than in the 1940s when female teachers were either given no maternity leave policy at all or, more frequently, a compulsory maternity leave that could begin as early as the fourth month of pregnancy. The reason? Administrators were afraid that a visibly pregnant woman would distract students, and that a woman who was pregnant would not be able to think as clearly (and therefore, do her job as well) as a woman who was not pregnant. This blatant discrimination was not directly challenged until the 1970s, bolstered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

Pregnant Women Face Discrimination In Addition To Sexism, Racism, Or Other Aggressions

One reason it took so long for the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to be implemented was that, during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the father was largely considered the family breadwinner. Mom stayed home, cooked dinner, and took care of the family. Women who worked were usually single, divorced, or widowed and needed to work so they would have a source of income. Women who entered the workforce as secretaries, teachers, or nurses were in the minority and faced not just sexual discrimination, but sexual harassment that was an accepted part of work culture.

That being said, there have always been incentives for women to hide a pregnancy in the workplace: if they were going to risk being fired, be forced to take a very early and therefore long maternity leave, or face penalties like reduced work hours, they would risk losing money, benefits like health insurance and opportunities for advancement.

Some women attempt to hide their pregnancy by wearing baggy clothes and come up with excuses to explain away symptoms of morning sickness as far into their pregnancies as they can manage. A study from The Academy of Management Journal looked at the strategies women use when they become pregnant and have to tell their bosses. They found that women who are upfront about their pregnancy — but remained "stoic" — were more likely to return to work. The study said they were also less likely to feel that they were discriminated against than the women who hid their pregnancy.

The key seemed to be that women who revealed their pregnancies early on, but still kept up with all their work and used what the study referred to as "image maintenance" strategies, faired better than the women who tried to hide their pregnancies. But it doesn't really address the reasons why so many women do feel the need to hide their pregnancies at work.

Why Do Women Hide Pregnancies? And In What Fields Of Work?


Some women may fear that their pregnancy will make them vulnerable to a demotion, or, that it could make their boss think they are less devoted to their job than a childless colleague. In a piece for The Atlantic, writer Darlena Cunha told the story of how, when she went on maternity leave, she came back to work to find she'd been demoted: "Simply put: The man they had placed in my position during my leave was a better fit than I had been," she wrote, and went on to look at why it is that mothers are more heavily scrutinized in the workplace than their male — or childless female — colleagues.

Are there any industries or fields of work that are more forgiving to women who become mothers? One might have been tempted to argue that teaching, a profession that at face value has "family hours," long breaks throughout the year, and benefits would be a great job for mothers: but it was women in the teaching profession in the years after WWII who were so blatantly discriminated against for being pregnant, to the point where once they were visibly showing, they were told they could no longer work. rated careers on friendliness to working moms and found that work-life balance was best in careers like dental hygiene, web development, and — of all things – sonography (a term familiar to many a pregnant woman who can't wait to hear her baby's heartbeat for the first time). But are women in those careers less likely to face workplace discrimination? Are they just as likely to be eligible for promotions as their male or childless coworkers? Does that "mom-friendliness" only apply to women who already have children — or does it include women who would like to have children in the future, and therefore would be pregnant on the job?

These questions remain unanswered and complicated by larger social issues, like a lack of unilateral support for working families, including paid maternity and/or paternity leave in many industries, a disparity in access to healthcare, and the ongoing debate about work-life balance for women.