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Bias in the Workplace Against Maternity Leave

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TV anchor Giuliana Rancic has been trying to have a baby for so long that her struggle to conceive is one of the subjects of her reality show on the Style network. So when she finally announced she was expecting via a surrogate, it was even more surprising to learn that she would only be taking a two-month maternity leave. She will be eligible for a leave that allows her more time off, so what gives?

Not even TV stars are immune to the pressures of the workplace. Rancic may be just like millions of other women in this country who forfeit some portion of their leave time to avoid alienating their employers. They do so because of a hidden bias against maternity leave that is deeply ingrained in the culture of corporate America.

As I've learned from the many pregnant clients who have confided in me, they fear that if they take the maximum allotted leave time, they will pay for it with resentment from coworkers and bosses upon their return. That resentment is the result of how maternity leaves disrupt the normal flow of business, pushing many inside an organization out of their comfort zones by forcing them to adjust their work habits to accommodate the personnel change. Either another employee has to cover for the outgoing employee, a temporary employee must be brought in and trained, or worst of all, the employer has to cope with the decision to not cover the missing work.

Pregnant women, fearful that any disruption will result in retribution, may want to make the best of a tough situation and overcompensate by getting back to work before it is legally necessary --even if it is before they are physically and emotionally ready to return.

Most expectant parents don't even realize how long they can be out on leave. To some degree, that is reflective of employers whose financial prerogative is to approve the shortest leaves possible. But in today's economy, it's just as likely women take abbreviated maternity leaves because they aren't fully informed of their options. Plenty of employers can't afford to hire trained human resources professionals, so instead an ill-equipped company representative can only do a cursory job of explaining legal entitlements. Some of them may not even be aware of all types of leaves that are available -- even in larger companies where one would expect to see compliance in this area. Worse yet, there is rarely any guidance provided for how to integrate company and state benefits together to ensure the most time off and pay while on leave.

Amid all this confusion, it only takes one woman inside a company to short-change her maternity leave and an unshakable precedent is created. Even when women retroactively learn that they could have been out longer, sometimes they decline to correct any misperceptions because they don't want others to get what they failed to attain. Yes, this does happen.

We're living in a corporate landscape where pregnancy discrimination is unfortunately on the rise. Even if women face what is not legally considered discrimination, they should not have to answer inappropriate questions related to their leave well before the last trimester. While employers are entitled to ask questions that enable them to plan around the extended absence a maternity leave creates, pregnant women often perceive a tone of hostility and complain of feeling like they need to commit to a specific, early return date.

The problem is that organizations are comprised of people who bring to the table their own personal biases filtered through experiences that can include their own reproductive failures. It can lead to pretty outrageous comments when women inform their employers of their pregnancy, like the client who told me her boss wanted to hear a detailed account of how she would be financially able to return to work after having her second child.

Regardless of the pressures a pregnant woman is up against in the workplace, there also exists an understandable fear that whether she ends up taking a minimum or maximum leave, any extended absence at all can dilute her value at the company, and perhaps increase the value of the people who stepped in for her. Once the company has functioned without her for even a brief period, her anxiety might dictate, they will figure out how to work around her and she'll never recover her previous stature.

But pregnant women must keep in perspective that it is in their best interest to extend their maternity leave for as long as possible to take advantage of the critical bonding period between mother and child. This is when breastfeeding and sleep schedules can be established, among other things. Studies have also shown that women who stay on leave longer are less prone to postpartum depression. It can be quite a shock to become a parent and only weeks later be expected to return to work at full capacity with only a couple hours of sleep per night.

What remains unclear is why companies feel it's good business practice to indirectly pressure women to return to work before they're ready. A woman who has been supported and taken as much time as possible would hold her company in high esteem and be more motivated to return to work. Especially now that the cost of childcare has skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, the hardest part of maternity leave is no longer sleepless nights caring for a newborn, but dealing with the anxiety surrounding communication between a pregnant women and her employer. Overcoming the fear of resentment is not something any woman should have to face when trying to attain a leave she is already entitled to by law.

Lauren Wallenstein, owner of Milk Your Benefits (www.milkyourbenefits.com), is a Human Resources consultant who works with expectant parents and companies that need guidance in leave administration.