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Why Women in Tech are Hiding Their Pandemic Pregnancies
The pandemic and remote work have exposed a troubling new trend.
By Aishwarya Jagani
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7 minute read

Sabrina Beaumont, CMO at Passion Plans, a California-based planning firm, was in the middle of a Zoom call on a Friday morning when her water broke. Beaumont, who hadn’t announced her pregnancy to her manager or co-workers yet, had to cover up, citing WiFi issues at home.

“As I got further into the lie from not admitting I was pregnant, I started feeling guilty. I was afraid I would be seen as ‘just another woman who got a job and chose to inconvenience her boss with her pregnancy’,” she told The Org.

When the pandemic forced most companies around the world to embrace remote work in 2020, a troubling trend began to emerge. Fearing unreasonable bias and the potential to miss out on professional opportunities, women in tech and other industries began concealing pregnancies from their employer, often forgoing maternity leave entirely, and continuing to work throughout and after their pregnancies.

“I was not far into the job before I found out I was pregnant,” Beaumont said, explaining why she chose to keep her pregnancy a secret from her employer, adding that she felt “embarrassed” since she wanted to prove herself at the job.

“We were having our weekly Friday morning Zoom call when my water broke. I remember slamming the computer shut and just claimed I had trouble with the internet,” she told The Org.

“I've previously definitely seen women get punished because of their pregnancies. I've seen women having to fight their way back after maternity leave. They've had to massively prove themselves just to be passed on for obvious promotions” she added.

The “motherhood penalty,” and why it affects only women

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer got pregnant in 2012 and 2015, she promised to take “limited time off” and was back at work within a month on both occasions, a move that was heavily criticized. The fact that one of the most powerful women in tech felt the need to forego maternity leave and be back at work as soon as humanly possibly only underscores the pervasive anti-mom bias in tech.

A 2021 survey indicated that 78% of women in tech feel they have to work harder than their male counterparts to prove their worth and are four times as likely as men to see gender bias as an obstacle to promotion. Studies show that while mothers suffer career setbacks due to being perceived as less committed to their jobs, less dependable and more emotional, men actually benefit at work from their roles as fathers, an effect called the “motherhood penalty.”

Women in tech and other fields have always been advised to keep pregnancies on the downlow for as long as possible. But with remote work or hybrid work becoming the norm in most companies, hiding a pregnancy right through to the end has now become possible. Despite the flexibility and privacy this affords women, it is extremely concerning. Concealing pregnancies and childbirth also mean many women end up foregoing the maternity leave that their companies offer as a benefit, and continue pushing themselves to work through a time of immense mental and physical stress, often resulting in burnout.

It is also a horrific indictment of work culture in 2022. If women are forced to hide their motherhood in order to sidestep sexist bias and discrimination, this could cause them to miss out on advancement opportunities, pay raises, and in rare cases, even lose their jobs.

When T.H., a thirty-something woman who quit a marketing job at a pharmaceutical company over concerns of sexism and bias, found herself pregnant, she chose to keep it a secret from her employers. “I was afraid that my ex-manager would replace me, which is something that has happened earlier with one of my female colleagues. When she went on maternity leave (for six months), they brought in someone else and after she came back, the manager dismissed her (citing reasons other than maternity leave and motherhood),” she said.

Multiple instances of women getting passed on for advancement opportunities, or having to contend with pay cuts or reduced responsibilities at work after a maternity break indicates that women’s concerns over announcing a pregnancy are not unfounded at all.

“The bias and discrimination may start long before one even files for maternity or family leave, as women may notice that they are suddenly being held back at work once a pregnancy has been revealed,” Senator Gloria Romero, former CA Senate Majority Leader, and author of Just Not That Likable: The Price All Women Pay for Gender Bias, told The Org.

“This can include projects being reassigned or being passed over for expected promotions or raises. And the penalties can start before you’re even hired, with one study finding that employed mothers had a lower recommended starting salary and suffered a ‘per-child wage penalty’ of approximately 5% on average,” she added.

How companies can make a difference

Despite the “bro culture” prevalent in industries like tech, finance and science, there’s a lot individual companies can do to create more balanced and fair cultures within their own offices. Beaumont, whose CEO is Scandinavian, told The Org that her CEO has always tried to promote values of fair and equal opportunity in the office.

The Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Finland, are known for their higher levels of wage equality, less gender bias and positive work culture.

“After having seen many women being punished for pregnancy, I believe we need a stronger legal framework protecting pregnant women to make substantial progress. The Scandinavian society is definitely one we should consider when modeling our rules,” Beaumont told The Org.

Romero also advocated for legal framework to prevent discrimination at work, adding, “The unfortunate reality is that many women continue to fear the potential discrimination because they have seen it happen to other women. I believe that it is imperative to ‘bring this out of the closet’ and destigmatize this.”

She added, “Employers need to have greater training on compliance with federal and state laws on maternity/family leave and non-discrimination pertaining to pregnancy. It is imperative for employers to initiate gender bias educational workshops, training for their administrators and staff.”

“Additionally, it is important for us to move past the ‘anecdotal’ and ‘I heard a story about…’ stages and start documenting the occurrences.”

Although the prevalence of remote work has brought more flexibility and equality to women in tech and other competitive industries, and given them more room to balance having a family with work, true progress can’t happen until the culture and anti-discrimination policies at workplaces change.

A shift in sexist mindsets, and stronger anti-discrimination laws could help women stop feeling guilty about wanting to have children, and taking maternity breaks.

“Privacy laws protect all workplace employees, but just as accommodations are made for medical conditions, pregnancy must become destigmatized,” said Romero.

“Hiding one’s pregnancy out of fear of job retaliation should never be acceptable to any of us,” she added.

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