In an era when Jacinda Ardern can take on the role of New Zealand prime minister and deliver her first baby eight months later, or when Marissa Mayer can be hired as the new CEO of Yahoo while six months’ pregnant, is it still relevant to wonder whether pregnancy is a hindrance to a woman’s career progression?
Very much so, according to corporate and commercial lawyer Kokila Alagh, founder of the award-winning Karm Legal law firm, in an exclusive interview with Gulf News. Currently pregnant with her second baby, Kokila firmly believes that a baby bump should in no way be a speed bump in a woman’s career. Yet she says that, in her experience, stereotypes and discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace are still very much alive and kicking across the world:
“I have been fortunate that my clients in general have been supportive through my first and second pregnancies. But I feel very strongly when that’s not the case,” says Kokila, who is due to give birth in Dubai this summer. “In one recent interaction with a well-established investment advisory, my ability to deliver on a potential assignment was questioned on account of my pregnancy. We were close to a deal and I was asked about my maternity leave. When I said that would not make a difference as it would be like any other annual leave, I had to listen to some unwarranted comments on the inclination of some women to choose a career over family by continuing to work during pregnancy. Needless to say, I did not proceed with the deal.”
A global issue
Kokila said when she started talking to others about it, she realised she was not the only one to have had such an experience. “There is a sub-conscious bias and apprehension about pregnancy. Many young women I spoke to said they would not be given important assignments when they were pregnant.”
Kokila says that both women and men from all different cultures can be guilty of bias against pregnant women. “This is not a gendered reaction or a cultural reaction. We work with many clients from the MENA and EU regions, but they have not had any such concerns. Yet the mindset that the workload of pregnant women should be reduced or managed, otherwise they might not be able to deliver on account of their pregnancy, is prevalent globally, despite advances in levels of education, social awareness and technology.”
Undermining women’s abilities
This is something that Abeer Al Tamimi, Emirati CEO of Dubai-based play area Kids HQ and mum of two, also identifies with. “When I fell pregnant with my second child 15 years ago, I was working in the male-dominated industry of Banking and Finance. I was in my mid-20s, filled with drive and ambition to build a career. But I started to notice that a lot of my colleagues would comment as if being pregnant meant I was impaired. ‘Oh Abeer can’t visit that client’, or ‘Abeer can’t travel to London,’ they would say.”
Working in the competitive world of finance for a British company, Abeer says some of her peers were using her pregnancy as a reason to undermine her professionally.
“I quickly realized that people were not only judging me and speaking for me, but they were being opportunists! But I also knew that I didn’t want to let my pregnancy stop me from getting the career goals I wanted. I put in the long hours, I didn’t apply for half time (which they offered me), and I worked up until the day I gave birth. I ended up getting the promotion I wanted.”
How employers can gain from empowerment
Now that she runs her own company at Kids HQ, Abeer has taken the learnings from her own experience being pregnant at work to inform how she treats her own employees when they become pregnant. “I encourage my female staff to embrace their pregnancies,” she says. “They have nothing to worry about. Because of the nature and scope of our work, they are able to bring their infants with them to work.”
This has led to a motivated and loyal workforce and the team at Kids HQ have remained the same ever since the business was founded in 2014, creating consistency and stability for the business and the play area’s customers. Abeer says she has seen at least four staff members become pregnant and have their babies while working for her, and they are still working there now.
Pushing the envelope
This is what talent manager Wajeeha Shabbir, a Pakistani/Australian expat and mum of two living in the UAE, tries to encourage when it comes to the HR policies of the companies she works for. She has pushed the envelope in her role by choosing to hire new employees who are already pregnant – something that she says many of her colleagues, both men and women, still find controversial. “
"I have experienced some business leaders, many of whom are women themselves, questioning whether a candidate who is recently married would be expecting in few months or a year,” she says. “I often challenge this stereotype. This is a natural course and we should be supportive of women who are pregnant. In fact I recall at one point recruiting an amazing candidate who was already expecting to a site project engineer position."
Women should not have to defend themselves as if it is a crime to be pregnant, says Wajeeha. "We should instead only question the talent coming in, look at the value they would bring to the team, the positive impact of a more diverse workforce, and the good that can come from female empowerment.”
Discrimination is bad for business
Zabeen Mirza is the CEO and founder of Jobs.com, a digital platform that helps mothers to find flexible jobs. She says that employers have a huge amount to miss out on if they do not give pregnant women the opportunities they deserve. “Pregnant women and working mothers are an asset to the workplace, and by not allowing them the respect of taking maternity leave, as well as opportunities for promotion, development, and greater career success, they create a culture of high turnover, demotivation, and poor performance.”
As the mother of three children herself, Zabeen says that she had terrible experiences with three different employers during each of her pregnancies: “With my first, my pregnancy was treated like a financial liability to the firm, and I was let go when I was 7 months pregnant so that the company did not have to pay my maternity leave.
“I was a freelance consultant when I was pregnant with my second child, and I was not given high profile projects because it was believed that it would be “too stressful”, even though I had communicated and proven repeatedly I was more than able.
“With my third child, I was given maternity leave, but then returned to work and told that I was too expensive for the firm and they had to let me go.”
She says these experiences taught her a valuable lesson. “It made me realise that the pregnant woman and working mother’s struggle is quite universal across cultures and countries, and that we must collectively do better in supporting women who have children. These women are qualified, skilled, experienced, and expert, and to discriminate against them, to treat them unfairly, and to value them less because of their family status is bad for your business, bad for your reputation. We can do better.”
Should a pregnant woman’s workload be reduced?
Pregnant women are just as capable of performing in the workplace as anyone else, says Jobs.mom’s Zabeen Mirza.
“A woman’s competence, skills, intelligence, or overall capabilities is in no way diminished by the fact she is pregnant, or has children,” says Zabeen. “To think otherwise does a grave injustice to the working mothers out there who have been statistically proven to outperform, outsell, out-produce, and outwork their peers.”
Dr Deemah Salem, an ob-gyn working at Genesis Clinic in Dubai agrees: “Medically speaking, if a woman is healthy with an uncomplicated normal pregnancy she is able to work all the way till the day she delivers. This is of course as long as her workplace is not a hazard in pregnancy (like environments with exposure to radiation or toxic fumes or involving physically challenging positions that may cause injury etc).”
Medically speaking, if a woman is healthy with an uncomplicated normal pregnancy she is able to work all the way till the day she delivers
While women do need to take some time off in order to have a baby, it is temporary and simply a matter of managing the workflow, says Kokila of Karm Legal. “From a work perspective, this is managed by putting adequate systems, points of contact and work flows in place to ensure that everything continues to function smoothly. The equivalence of pregnancy with a physical disadvantage must go, especially in today’s world of advanced medical and technology facilities where we do not even need to be physically present in a particular place to deliver on our mandates. COVID-19 has taught us that growth can happen regardless of where the person is.”
Nevertheless, although Kokila and others might be able to work to their previous ability while pregnant, the situation is different for every pregnant woman, says Dr Salem. “Even normal pregnancy can bring along with it many challenges that can exhaust a patient at work such as morning sickness, back pain, lack of sleep...etc. These normal pregnancy symptoms can make it more difficult to get work done.”
“My opinion is that every pregnant patient is different. I try to work with my patients to help them along the way by listening to their physical, emotional and mental needs and counsel them on their work based on that. What I say to one patient may be entirely different than what I say to another.
“I have some patients that are quite keen to save up their all their sick/annual leave days till after the baby is born and have the ability to work through their entire pregnancy. But I also have other patients who find it very stressful to perform at work due to nausea or fatigue and request to change their work load because of this.
“From the medical perspective for a normal healthy uncomplicated pregnancy, no, the work load need not be reduced as long as the nature of the work does not cause physical harm to the pregnancy. However, this doesn't mean that each pregnant woman won't have her own personal needs, whether they be mental, emotional or physical needs. And I think those needs need to be respected and we should try to be understanding and offer different solutions for pregnant patients.”
Supporting pregnancy, not pretending it doesn’t exist
For pregnant Dubai-based British expat Anna, who wishes to keep her true identity anonymous, work has been a huge challenge since she became pregnant. “I’m struggling with chronic fatigue and insomnia so I’m constantly tired. I feel like a walking zombie some days, However I will always make sure to get the job done as I’m very driven. My job is commission based, so I have to run my own hours and when you want to make a lot, you work a lot. I would say just because I’m carrying out the same duties as others in my office who aren’t pregnant, it doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling/tired/feel sick some days.”
Just because I’m carrying out the same duties as others in my office who aren’t pregnant, it doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling/tired/feel sick some days
Anna believes that the workload should be modified for pregnant women if possible. “Most definitely if the job is physically demanding but even so if it’s not because some days my brain just struggles to work and I’m not even moving, but just sat at my desk. Being pregnant is physically and mentally challenging, so regardless of the job, yes the workload should be reduced.”
Anna says that she is being treated differently at work because she is pregnant, but for her it is in a positive way because she feels her employers are supportive of her pregnancy. “I’m lucky to have a team that is like a family and they care for me. For example, we had to do a task that required us to be on our feet for seven hours straight. The team were told that they must attend and work that day. However, I was told I didn’t need to come because I am pregnant. But I wanted to do it, and they were still supportive of that also, and said I should come but just leave if I want to.”
"Like any other health concern"
Talent manager Wajeeha Shabbir says that pregnancy should be treated the same way as any other health event in a person’s life. “Let's put it this way, what happens when you break a leg, have an accident, or fall sick? Would you expect some flexibility? Of course you would.
What happens when you break a leg, have an accident, or fall sick? Would you expect some flexibility? Of course you would.
“The question that we should ask as an organization is: how can we support expecting mums or even working mums? How does supporting them with certain flexibilities enable productivity, motivation and drive towards successful end results? Women who are expecting are compromising on their health. Give them the genuine flexibility, set an example and see the ROI. The irony is many organizations tend to forget we are talking about human beings not machines. It is not about reducing workload for pregnant women, it is about understanding, support and creating a workplace that women feel they are able to belong to.”
Competence is all that should matter
Kokila says the majority of her clients and team members realise that pregnant women are just as capable of doing their jobs as they would be if they were not pregnant, and most male as well as female clients continue to request pregnant colleagues’ skillsets at seminars and events as normal. “It is all about balance and being prepared. Women are, especially in today’s technologically progressive world, capable of managing work and family together, including life milestones such as pregnancy. A person’s competence is all that matters in the workplace – not his/her age, orientation, gender, beliefs.”
For Wajeeha, it’s about investing in people: “It is about looking beyond the horizon and being able to trust that a female colleague who is pregnant will be able to deliver on her work. All it takes is one chance and some trust.”
And for any women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant and are afraid that it might derail thir career, Zabeen Mirza has this advice: “Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself - speak up. Communicate clearly what you can do. Speak openly and honestly with your managers about your post-baby plans for growth, development, and promotion, and chart a path to realizing those goals together. This let’s them know that you are committed, and you are more than just a mother. You are a career woman, you are an expert, you are a valued member of the team.”