In Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In, the COO of Facebook discusses some of the reasons why there still aren’t very many women in leadership positions in business. Of course women have been making great strides in leadership positions, and Sandberg herself is a testament to that; however, the further up one looks in the chain of command in any company, the less females there are.

One of the issues Sandberg extrapolates on is pregnant women in the workplace. Being pregnant or a nursing mother at work requires accommodations beyond what most employees need. Men and women alike in leadership positions don’t always think of special circumstances required to make a pregnant or nursing employee comfortable enough to stay at their position. Although a few federal laws are in place to protect these employees (such as laws against pregnancy discrimination), there is definitely room for improvement. All employers desiring to keep impending mothers in their positions should do their best to implement a few accommodations, such as some of the ones listed below.

Some people mistakenly assume that the PDA (Pregnancy Discrimination Act) requires employers to accommodate pregnant employees the same way they would for a disabled employee under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). In fact, employers only have to treat pregnant employees the same way they did before. Because it is not legally required, employers should take the initiative themselves, or at least accommodate the employee when she asks for it.

  1. Ask the employee if they need any special accommodation. Many times pregnant employees are afraid to ask. Of course, employers should respect their employee’s privacy and space by not asking intrusive or inappropriate questions. And hopefully everyone knows not to ask a woman if she is pregnant, which means employers should only ask if they need accommodation if the employee has already told them about the pregnancy.
  2. Give pregnant employees “light-duty” assignments. Generally this refers to heavy lifting. Not only can physical labor be limited for expecting mothers, but it can be harmful for both mother and baby.
  3. One example Sandberg uses is the issue of parking. Sandberg waddled across the long parking lot from her spot to the office when she was extremely pregnant. It wasn’t until she heard that a friend was given a closer parking spot at her place of business that she realized that this would be a reasonable accommodation for pregnant employees. If an expecting employee needs it, provide a closer parking spot.
  4. Allow pregnant employees to have as many bathroom breaks as they need. This is one of the biggest issues many pregnant women have in the workplace. Often employers are unreasonable and try to limit bathroom breaks. This is unfair for a woman who needs to drink more fluids than normal and also has a baby pressing on her bladder.
  5. Give expecting fathers paternity leave. Paternity leave is almost unheard of in the U.S., but in many parts of Europe it has become the norm (such as Sweden, where 85% of fathers take leave). During the first few weeks of an infant’s life, one person giving care may not be enough. Mothers need the help of their partners.
  6. Although there are federal laws in place requiring employers to give nursing mothers a time and place to express milk at work, most of the state laws make no such stipulation. Women have been forced to breastfeed or pump milk in bathrooms, in cars in the parking lot, or even asked to leave company property entirely. The solution to this would be to provide a comfortable and private room where women can express milk.

Although the number of expecting employees working for an employer might be small, Sheryl Sandberg herself is a good example of why pregnant employees should be accommodated: she is now one of the chief executives of a business worth billions of dollars. She was Vice President of Global Online Sales & Operations for Google when she was pregnant with her first child. A pregnant woman might have a few more hurdles to cross, but her performance and work ethic can easily remain steady with help from her employer.  

Sources:

O’Leary, David F. “Do Employers Have the Legal Duty to ‘Accommodate’ Pregnant Employees?” http://www.rhoadssinon.com/updates-publications-90.html. (12 Sept. 2013).

Bennhold, Katrin. “In Sweden, Men Can Have It All.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/world/europe/10iht-sweden.html?pagewanted=all. (12 Sept. 2013).

Marcus, Jake. “Breastfeeding Law: Know Your Legal Rights.” http://breastfeedinglaw.com/. (12 Sept. 2013).