Pregnancy stereotypes can cause more workplace accidents for expectant employees

PULLMAN, Wash. — Pregnant women in the workplace are often unfairly stereotyped as less competent than other employees. Now, a new study from Washington State University finds that these beliefs can also lead to more workplace accidents and injuries.

Researchers posit that pregnant employees are often so determined to prove these stereotypes untrue they end up overexerting themselves and risking injury.

In the study, about 400 pregnant women working physically demanding jobs were surveyed. More than three in five (63%) admit they are frequently afraid of validating the stereotypes that pregnant women are delicate, weak, or less motivated than other workers. Consequently, many of these respondents admitted to taking on copious amounts of extra work. Some even say they agreed to assignments that could potentially put both theirs and their child’s health at risk. Such tasks involved standing for hours on end, or lifting heavy weights.

Moreover, some respondents hid their pregnancy altogether to avoid being subjected to the stereotype.

According to the study’s lead author Lindsey Lavaysse, a recent WSU Ph.D. graduate, these findings emphasize how important it is for companies of all sizes and types to acknowledge and fight against unfair stereotypes.

“The pregnancy stereotype is a silent stressor. It is not always visible, but it really impacts women in the workplace,” she explains in a release. “Most organizations have policies for pregnancy accommodation in place, and it’s a legal right, but if the organization’s culture suggests there will be retaliation or that workers will be looked upon differently, then women will shy away from using accommodations that are better for their health and their safety.”

‘Stereotype threats’ among pregnant employees

For the study, the pregnant participants were surveyed three different times over two months. The women were interviewed at various points during their pregnancy, and all came from a variety of industries (retail, health care, manufacturing).

So, what about actual workplace accidents? The study’s authors investigated and compared incidents among participants who reported high and low “stereotype threats.” Stereotype threat refers to how afraid an individual is of confirming what others believe about them.

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Sure enough, women who reported a higher stereotype threat were involved in close to three times more workplace accidents over the two month observation period than the other surveyed workers.

Also, the survey’s results suggest that female employees tend to become more self-conscious about their pregnancy as it progresses. Respondents reported more worry about the stereotype as time went on. 

“Two months is a relatively small window of time, but in the scheme of a pregnancy that’s close to one whole trimester,” Lavaysse comments. “As they’re progressing through their pregnancy, their experience of stereotype threat, a significant stressor, is also increasing.”

This is the first-ever study to establish a connection between pregnancy stereotypes and workplace accidents. Of course, there’s a good chance it won’t be the last. The team at WSU wants to see more studies conducted on this topic. Hopefully, additional research can identify some ways to do away with the negative workplace stigma associated with pregnancy.

The study is published in Work & Stress.

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