In the past, research on working parents was scant. Luckily, that is changing. We are also seeing more focus on women’s health in the workplace! As we learn more about how to support working parents, some of the results have been surprising. Recent research has demonstrated that helping your pregnant coworkers can sometimes have unintended consequences. We have talked about the importance of supporting working parents, specifically working moms, before. This article gets further into some details about what you might do to support pregnant coworkers! The potentially bad side effects of help can stem from something called benevolent sexism. This is a form of sexism that seems like it might be kind on the surface, but can actually be harmful. Keep reading to learn more!
What is benevolent sexism?
First, in order to explain how your actions might impact pregnant coworkers, we have to discuss benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism involves promoting stereotypical views of women, but in a way that sounds positive taken at face value. For example, benevolent sexism might prescribe that women should be protected by men. It might also include thinking of women as naturally pure or moral individuals. Finally, it might include thinking of women as needing adoration or to be placed on a pedestal by men.
While this might appear nice to some, benevolent sexism can have negative implications. Many cultures have some form of benevolent sexism present in their ideology. Unfortunately, countries that have greater levels of benevolent sexism also have higher gender inequality. Further, experiencing benevolent sexism makes women perform worse cognitively, even compared to more hostile, outward experiences of sexism. Finally, benevolent sexism makes women less likely to fight for equality compared to hostile sexism. In both of these instances, hostile sexism actually ends up leading to more positive outcomes because it is clearly recognizable and can motivate women to prove themselves or fight back.
How does benevolent sexism relate to helping during pregnancy?
Have you ever offered a seat to a pregnant coworker? Or offered to take on difficult work to make things easier for them? New research shows that this may have negative impacts, including causing women to eventually leave the workplace. While you might be well-intended in your actions, these behaviors might send the message that you think your coworker is incompetent. This can have a negative impact on their confidence and willingness to keep working. It makes sense when you think about it more closely.
If you are pregnant, and you want to ensure that your coworkers don’t think of you any differently, you might not appreciate having your pregnancy called out. Also, being treated like you need extra help – if you don’t – can make you feel inadequate or less than. However, when your pregnant coworkers do want help, you can feel free to offer it. If they tell you they do feel extra tired or stressed, helping does not have the same negative effects. It’s all about how the help is perceived. So, what is the best way to move forward?
Making Sure You’re Actually Helping Pregnant Workers
If you want to truly help workers who are pregnant, the answer is actually pretty straightforward. Make sure that the help you’re offering is actually help they appreciate. This means that dialogue is crucial. Whether you are a manager or a coworker, starting a conversation about what might help your pregnant coworker is probably best. Try to have the conversation privately, so you’re not calling them out in front of everyone.
If you’re a manager, try saying something like “I know that your maternity leave is coming up – is there anything I can do to help you before then?” Or, if you’re a coworker, you might wait to see if they approach you for help. If they don’t, always avoid giving help that makes it seem that they are not capable of completing work on their own. For example, if they have to miss a meeting to attend a doctor’s appointment, offer to record the meeting instead of taking notes or giving them a recap. This helps them not to feel reliant on you, and empowers them to continue contributing at the same level.
Overall, remember that helping is not about you! It’s about what your pregnant coworker wants and feels most comfortable with. So, take their lead!!