- When employers or co-workers treat pregnant employees with extra care, it can reduce the rates at which they return to work after maternity leave, according to new research from Rice University, the University of Memphis, Boston College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
- "Benevolent sexism" — which can include, for example, co-workers shielding pregnant employees from unpleasant news, giving them easier tasks or assigning them lighter workloads — made them feel worse about themselves and their workplace abilities, the researchers said.
- Eden King, an associate professor of psychological sciences at Rice and one of the researchers, said in a media release that the worse the women in the study felt about their abilities, the less likely they were to return to the workforce following maternity leave.
HR professionals know that when a pregnant employee requests a job modification, the employer must treat her the same way it treats other employees. If the employer offers light duty for injuries, for example, that accommodation also must be considered for pregnant workers that request a change, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Employers cannot, however, force pregnant employees to accept accommodations such as light duty or leave. "A policy requiring workers to take leave during pregnancy or excluding all pregnant or fertile women from a job is illegal except in the unlikely event that an employer can prove that non-pregnancy or non-fertility is a bona fide occupational qualification," according to EEOC's enforcement guidance on pregnancy discrimination.
Such actions may be well-intentioned, as the recent research notes, but ultimately can amount to discrimination — and EEOC has made clear that it will pursue claims in this area.