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It’s a culture of “inclusion”, NOT “tolerance” – two tales from a pregnant woman

I have been pregnant while working – twice. In each case I managed a team of product managers in a ‘small-to-mid sized’ software company. In both these companies I worked for a man, my team were all men and the company was dominated by men. In both cases, I was the only (and first ever) pregnant woman in the company.

However, my experience could not have been more different. 

Company 1: 

Remember that scene from Alien where the alien pops out of the man’s chest? Imagine if everyone looked at you as though an alien was about to pop out your belly in a disgusting gory mess… every day. Every time I showed the slightest reaction to pain or discomfort my colleagues would back away. Their facial expressions said it all – ‘Eww, don’t get baby on me!’ 

Rides to lunch or a meeting became a game of ‘not it’ with who had to take the pregnant woman. The game included fantastic commentary such as “I just had my car detailed, I don’t want to risk it,” or “Can you sit on this towel, just in case”. 

Leading up to the big day was full of important preparations - from the action plan for who would own what in my absence to ensuring that all my work was saved somewhere publicly… just in case. 

Upon my return, conversations included ‘What is a lactation room and why do you need one?’ which inevitably led to ‘ewww….’  

I was pregnant, not toxic!

In company 1, for many of my colleagues, I was, at best, tolerated, and not gladly. In addition to the unpleasant day to day experience of being treated like I was going to start leaking nastiness, I was set apart from the team and company, isolated as something different and foreign. 

Pregnant with my second, I was prepared to have the same experience – after all, being the first and only pregnant women in a male-dominated company in the male-dominated world of technology, why would I expect anything different? 

Company 2 :

I realized things were different when I found myself very quickly in deep conversations on the pros and cons of using a midwife (I am pro), home remedies for morning sickness, and what local hospitals I was considering along with several recommendations.  

Habits shifted to accommodate my changing needs; meetings grew shorter or were carved up to include more breaks and everyone started bringing snacks (because I was always eating). Lunch moved earlier to accommodate when I would get hungry and in office messages started including ridiculous baby name suggestions. 

The ‘How are you feeling?’ questions were genuine, as were the offers for rides to lunch or meetings.

As for the important preparation – somewhere around month eight, one of my team members walked proudly into the open-plan office calling across the crowded room: 

“Dobbins, we are all set!”  

“Fantastic, all set for what?” I replied.

“I have blankets, water, a bucket… just in case you throw up,” he responded proudly.

He had prepared his car just in case I went into labor while at work – and he was not the only one! 

Inclusion is… feeling welcome 

Inclusion is not about having people of different ethnicities, ages, genders, sexual orientation, pregnancy… and it is not having other people around who are like you (my team in company 2 was still all men) – those are all just traits. Inclusion is about being welcome, feeling comfortable, being accepted and respected for who you are and what you bring to a team and a company.  

Why does this matter so much? Well, in company 1, that isolation resulted in a disconnection between work and life; adding stress and discomfort that lowered my productivity and job satisfaction. In company 2, I stayed engaged during maternity leave, came back early part time, and was energized and excited to engage; this increased my productivity, job satisfaction, and loyalty.  

There are many ways to cultivate a culture of inclusion, and most of them are not big – it can be as simple as adding snacks during meetings. 

What have you done to promote inclusion with your colleagues? 

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