Does being pregnant cost women jobs?

Pregnant job applicants receive more interpersonal hostility than do nonpregnant job applicants, says Mikki Hebl, but women who address stereotypes are nearly three times less likely to experience discrimination than women who say nothing. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Pregnant women are more likely to experience discrimination when looking for a job than nonpregnant women, but there are things they can do to minimize the bias.

A new study examines four potential stereotypes driving hostile attitudes and discriminatory behaviors toward pregnant job applicants: incompetence, lack of commitment, inflexibility, and need for accommodation—and how these stereotypes can be refuted.


The experiment measured formal discrimination (whether applicants were told a job was available and allowed to complete a job application) and interpersonal discrimination (whether sales personnel attempted to prematurely end the conversation, pursed their lips, exhibited hostility, treated the applicant rudely, furrowed their eyebrows, and seemed awkward).

Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study reveals that ratings from three perspectives—applicants, observers, and independent evaluators—converge to show that pregnant job applicants receive more interpersonal hostility than do nonpregnant job applicants.

But the study also shows that pregnant job applicants who address these stereotypes when inquiring about jobs (particularly their personal levels of commitment and flexibility) are nearly three times less likely to experience interpersonal discrimination than pregnant job applicants who say nothing to combat pregnancy stereotypes.

“This study takes the research of discrimination against pregnant women a step further,” says Whitney Botsford Morgan assistant professor of management at the University of Houston-Downtown.

How to reduce discrimination

“We know that this type of discrimination exists. This research helps us understand what can be done to reduce it. Statements that refute stereotypes about being inflexible and lacking commitment are particularly effective.”

“Understanding what counterstereotypical information is effective at reducing discrimination is critical for pregnant women to know because then they can act or provide information counter to such stereotypes,” says Mikki Hebl, professor of psychology at Rice University.

“In addition, human resources departments also can benefit from focusing their employee training initiatives on the inclusion of effective counterstereotypical information that redresses pregnancy discrimination.”

The study included 161 retailers in three malls in a major metropolitan area. All of these retailers confirmed that they were hiring prior to the study. Five undergraduate women participated as the study’s “applicants” and wore standardized attire consisting of black shirts, dark blue jeans, low-heeled shoes and wedding rings.

In addition, the “applicants” carried small black purses that concealed a digital audio-recorder for recording each interaction. Five additional undergraduates (three women, two men) served as observers for each of the interactions and three undergraduate women who were unaware of the study’s purpose and conditions served as independent evaluators.

The researchers hope that this study will add to the body of research about pregnancy and discrimination and help individuals and organizations empower themselves as well as decrease discriminatory behavior.

“Pregnant women are well-advised to know that negative stereotypes exist, and that they can do something about them,” Hebl says.

Researchers from George Mason University contributed to the study.

Source: Rice University