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Office baby boom elicits nasty jokes

Colorization and layout with text by Franke James, MFA.; Black baby carriage Šistockphoto.com/James Steidl

Dear Office-Politics,

I am a professional at a consulting company, leading a small group of employees. My husband and I had gone back and forth over our decision to have children for several years (although obviously this was not shared with management). I recently became pregnant and am very happy about it.

I informed my supervisor as soon as the pregnancy was confirmed with a plan to have my work and staff covered while on leave and with a commitment to return to work full time with the same schedule. Many other women in our region and office have had children since I started work at the company, which is considered very ‘family friendly’.

Three other women are currently pregnant in the office and everyone seemed very happy for them. However, when I made my announcement, circumstances were not the same. My boss told me and others that he was very surprised because he thought I was a “career woman“. This is a man who has children himself and has been very vocal in his need to leave at 5pm, take time off to babysit or do field trips, and not work weekends for his family.

One very senior management person asked another woman “You aren’t planning on having any kids soon are you?” during annual goal setting and reviews.

Another boss walked by my office and jokingly said “I think you planned this” – as though clearly I should have asked his permission to have a baby.

Then my supervisor, in front of one of the other pregnant managers and three other male managers joked that he was going to have new women employees sign a waiver stating that they would have their tubes tied before starting at our company.

This all has been really bothering me for a couple weeks. I am hesitant to say anything to my manager or HR because I don’t want to be excluded from the management group if they think I am going to be offended and cause a problem. I’m definitely not one to be offended at jokes or other types of humor. However, this clearly is not appropriate. I guess they have reacted this way because there are several women who will be out on leave this year, I also bring in a lot of revenue and manage staff and they are worried that this will end, but I’m seriously reconsidering whether I stay at this company when I return from leave based on this type of treatment. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Pregnant Pause

jennifer glueck bezoza
Dear Pregnant Pause,

First things first. Congratulations on your pregnancy! This is an exciting time in your life, and we would hope that your employer (and more specifically, your manager) would be supportive or at a minimum respectful of your personal decision. Clearly, you have worked hard to earn your position professionally and have thought a lot about the commitment required in having a family while balancing professional aspirations.

This makes it especially unfortunate that your supervisor and other company leaders have expressed disregard for the possibility that female employees, such as yourself, could be equally committed to both a career and a family. Women have made great strides in the workforce over the last several decades, yet there is little doubt that sexist attitudes and discrimination still persist, and your experience only further illuminates this reality.

At the same time that sensitivity and respect should be the norm in response to the need for maternity leave, it is important to acknowledge and understand the way in which demographic trends are forcing many employers to deal with a sharp rise in employees taking parental leaves all at once. A recent article, “Baby Boom Echo Rattles Workforce,” by Canadian marketing and retailing reporter Marina Strauss, highlights the significant challenges companies are facing as Generation Y hits its peak child-bearing years. David Foot, a professor of Economics at the University of Toronto and co-author of the bestseller Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift is quoted in the article saying that employers with an overwhelming number of young female employees will be hit hardest by the swelling number of maternity leaves. However, all companies with a young work force will feel the effects.

You’re going to see this as an increasing trend over the next decade as the boomers become grandparents,” Foot says. “Companies should be aware of that as they hire children of the boomers. If they want young workers in their work force, they need more flexible workplace policies.”
David Foot, ‘Baby boom echo rattles workplace’, The Globe and Mail, March 5, 2008

Given this demographic reality, and companies’ increasing reliance on talented women, such as yourself, their alarm is understandable. Companies are scrambling to adapt — and you may be able to take a leadership role to assist in their dilemma.

Thinking of your situation, it is difficult to assess the tone and underlying intention of the remarks made by your boss and other leaders, but there is little doubt that these statements are inappropriate. Whether or not there will be a number of women out on maternity leave later this year, and there are valid resource/staffing concerns, does not excuse the nature of questions and statements made inside your organization.

What is clear from your explanation is that you are a highly valued revenue-producing manager at your consulting firm. In addition, it’s obvious that your supervisor is nervous and insecure with the idea of your going on maternity leave, and his comments may be a reflection of his anxiety more than anything else.

Your inquiry centers on how you should, or should not, respond to these offensive attitudes and comments, and also whether to return or leave the company following maternity leave. Below are suggestions on actions you can take to protect your best interests. You may opt to pursue one or more of these recommendations below.

First off, I commend you on the actions you have already taken. It was strategic and thoughtful of you to inform your manager of your pregnancy with a plan for staff coverage during your absence and a commitment to return full time after your maternity leave. Many individuals might not have thought it their responsibility to think these details through in advance. (Note: You may feel differently about this decision following the child’s birth, but it is impossible to predict with certainty what will work for you before the arrival of the child and thus, a verbal commitment and intention is all that can be expected.)

I would also be sure to document exactly what has been said by whom and when (exact time and date), should you ever need to bring it to HR or an attorney in the near or distant future. Reading between the lines, it does not sound as if you would feel comfortable bringing forth a formal complaint at this time, but you may feel differently in a few weeks or months. There is no doubt this route should be weighed very carefully, as lawsuits can be a huge emotional and financial drain and take years to resolve.

Depending on your level of comfort with your manager, you may opt to have a private discussion with him, letting him know of your surprise and disappointment by the reaction to your pregnancy. You might also reveal that you are the first to welcome humor and jokes in the workplace, but that particular remarks were hard for you to overlook, given the sensitivity of the situation. You might share openly also that it makes you question the ‘family friendly’ attitudes and policies of the company. It is obvious your boss would not want to lose your steady revenue contributions, so you are in a very strong position for influencing his behavior (not to mention the obvious concern about what you might do if you do not experience a change in attitude).

You might also choose to respond in the moment to inappropriate comments going forward. Using humor or quick wit could be a good tactic for expressing disapproval in a way that is clear and assertive. For example, you might say, “Are we in the 21st century here? I’m so disappointed in you.” Or “Better be careful, I have a tape recorder in my back pocket.” Alternatively, you could respond with a straight face and clear disapproval with, “I must share that I find your question/statement highly offensive.

Additionally or alternatively, you may decide that you would like to help your organization effectively respond and plan for the uptick in parental leaves that has already begun. It might mean leading a task force that would put forth recommendations to senior leaders in the organization or it could be as simple as raising the demographics issue with senior HR and business leaders and the need for a larger re-evaluation of policies and operational effectiveness.

In terms of whether you should return to this organization following your maternity leave, I think it is too early to know. Strategically, I would advise you to keep the door open. Maintain good relations. That way you will have the option to return to your current role and team if you would like to do so. The step mentioned above will also provide further insight on the organization’s willingness to confront demographic realities and be flexible for families. Your time outside of the office will give you time to weigh your decision more thoroughly and even consider alternative employment opportunities. Who knows, maybe you will decide to work for yourself? It sounds like you have a lot of sales and management skills that you could put to use in an independent venture.

Best wishes for your pregnancy, and for continued success professionally.

Thank you for writing to Office Politics.

Warm regards,

Jennifer Glueck Bezoza, MA

Jennifer Glueck Bezoza has an MA in organizational psychology from Columbia University and a BA in psychology and humanities from Stanford University. She currently works in Organizational Development for the largest not-for-profit home health organization in the country where she focuses on succession planning, leadership development and coaching. Previously, she worked for GE Commercial Finance and HR consultant, Towers Perrin.

  1. 2 Answers to “Office baby boom elicits nasty jokes”

  2. To be frank – it isn’t a massive surprise that women have babies.

    The chap has reacted in a way that is demonstrating a desire to exercise control over something that is so obviously beyond his control.

    I think businesses need to recognize that good staff are hard to find – whatever gender and put in place systems to support maternity.

    There is no corporate altruism I am afraid.

    By robert fenton on May 18, 2008

  3. Dear Pregnant Pause,

    I had a similar issue when I got married. I was a senior manager at a very large Fortune 500 company for several years (promoted every year), and I was shocked at the responses I received after announcing my engagement. Up until that point, I kept my personal life just that…personal. Many other managers (including females), although married themselves, told me that they thought I would “be serious about my career” and that “I needed to get my priorities straight.” Whatever happened to “congratulations”? Since when does having a marriage/family negate having a career? Some of my executives even encouraged me to divorce my husband (also a professional in a different industry) to focus solely on my career almost immediately after our wedding. While I laughed off these statements at the time, it gave me clear insight in regards to the corporate double standard…especially for women. Although I loved my career and did well, after 50 years, would a corporation be there to hold my hand and comfort me? I ended up switching to another company, and my husband (priority #1) and I are both happy working hard and balancing family with work. Congratulations on your pregnancy and good luck!

    By Stargazer on Jun 21, 2009

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