I started my job in career services at the University of Pennsylvania when my wife was already pregnant. It was September and she was due in February. Starting a new role at the beginning of the busiest semester was certainly an adjustment for me. I worked hard to absorb the large amounts of information I needed to use so that I could provide effective advice to graduate students and postdocs across most of the academic disciplines at Penn.
My colleagues did not know that my wife was pregnant -- it was simply a fact I had not shared for no other reason than it hadn’t really come up in conversation: “Yes, I can report that we have three speakers confirmed for the Expanded Career Opportunities for Science and Engineering Ph.D.s panel discussion scheduled for Nov. 30. Unlike my wife, none of them appear to be pregnant.”
The proverbial cat was let out of the bag when my visibly pregnant wife came to speak at the Expanded Career Opportunities for Ph.D.s in the Humanities and Social Sciences panel discussion organized by one of my colleagues. My wife has a Ph.D. in anthropology and works as executive director of a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, so I had recommended her as a good panelist (of course I did!).
As soon as that cat was unleashed from its bag, it ran around the office with frightening speed. My colleagues both congratulated me and then chastised me for not sharing this exciting news earlier (this office has a very baby- and family-friendly culture). I didn’t have a very good excuse except that, from my perspective, the right opportunity to share this had just not come up.
You can probably see where I am going with this. It was easy enough for me to (unintentionally) conceal the fact that my wife was pregnant, and despite the many adventures that February brought (and the significant decrease in sleep I also experienced), I was able to continue to turn up each day and do my work without too much trouble. If I had still been in the process of applying for a job rather than starting one, would my wife’s pregnancy be something I would share with interviewers? No, of course not, because it would not be relevant to the skills and experience I would bring to the job. Interviewers shouldn’t ask personal questions about family, and so there would be no reason for me to bring it up.
However, if an interviewer mentioned in casual conversation that they were a new parent, then perhaps I could make mention of my experiences -- building some common ground with future colleagues is not necessarily a bad idea if that fits in with the company culture. If they did find out, would prospective employers care if my wife was having a baby when it came to comparing me against other candidates? Unlikely, and some employers might actually see this as a positive, because if I got the job, surely I would work hard to keep it and the necessary benefits that came along with it.
But what if I were a woman? Or perhaps less confusingly, what if my wife was applying for jobs while she was pregnant? Should she talk about babies, family, personal goals or any of that? In an ideal world, there should be no difference in the interview advice given to women and men in this respect -- don’t talk about personal matters, and keep the conversation focused on your ability to use your unique combination of skills and knowledge to get the job done. This approach works fairly well for pregnant women who are not yet showing, or if their interview occurs over the phone or Skype.
Being pregnant does not prevent anyone from using their academic and professional skills in the jobs they are applying for, whether these are faculty or nonfaculty positions. For women in the early stages of pregnancy, the best time to bring up being pregnant is probably once a job offer has been made in writing, although this should still be done carefully and thoughtfully. Part of the negotiation discussion might be focused around this future event, and there should definitely be a well thought out and mutually agreed upon work plan in place soon after starting the new job so that work can get completed.
I think that the advice offered to women who are obviously pregnant during in-person interviews has to be a little different. When it is obvious that you are pregnant, you should probably make mention of it, even though you are generally not required to do so during interviews. Most employers are not really allowed to ask you about personal matters like this as part of interviews (or rather, they are legally bound not to discriminate against you for being pregnant). However, in the same way that it is hard not to think about a pink elephant when someone tells you not to think about a pink elephant, it becomes hard not to focus on the pregnancy aspect as an interviewer when you know that you are not meant to be focusing on the pregnancy. That is just the way the human brain works.
In these situations, perhaps it is best to address the issue head-on, to address it confidently and then not address it anymore. To a certain extent, this approach provides you with an opportunity to illustrate some key skills and to show your understanding of the requirements of the job. For example, if you have thought about how you intend to rear a child and work full- or part-time at the organization you are applying to, and can present your proposed ideas coherently to employers, you are showing an ability to plan and organize your time effectively, and to use a little creative problem solving to do so.
For faculty teaching jobs, you might plan to have your classes organized ahead of time, or be able to convert them into hybrid/blended courses (part face-to-face, part online) prior to the start of the semester. But interviews should not get sidetracked by the issue of pregnancy, and you need to make sure that the focus remains on your teaching and research skills for faculty jobs, and your relevant transferable or technical skills (e.g., leadership, teamwork, communication) for nonfaculty ones. You need to stick in your interviewers’ heads as an outstanding candidate, not as a pregnant candidate.
Understanding the culture of the organizations you are applying to will be important in terms of how much information you might be willing to share. Some places are likely to be more “baby friendly” than others (e.g., those providing child care facilities within the office, or that share details about generous family and medical leave benefits offered to parents).
It would be naive to believe that discrimination against pregnant women does not occur during the job application process. It is usually hard to prove it when it does clearly occur. Some aspects of the job search are out of your hands, and so it is worth focusing your energies on those aspects that you can directly control. This does mean having some understanding of employment laws, doing background research into different companies and their cultures, practicing talking confidently and unapologetically about your pregnancy and how you’ve given thought to minimizing the impact of your personal life on your potential new work environment, and working hard to keep the conversation focused on what you can contribute to the organization and how well you fit.
Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.
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