Serena Williams is the no. 1 ranked female tennis player and probably the world’s best living athlete.
And she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open while pregnant.
We didn’t know that before. At a Vancouver TED Conference on Tuesday, Williams told the audience she did not know she was pregnant until two days before the tournament. When she found out, she became “nervous.” Williams said she “wasn’t sure what to do. Can I play? I know it’s very dangerous in the first 12 weeks or so, so I had a lot of questions.”
But she was determined to not let the worry distract her from trying to win the tournament. She told no one.
“It wasn’t very easy. You hear all these stories about people when they’re pregnant —they get sick, they get really tired, really stressed out … I had to really take all that energy and put it in a paper bag, so to say, and throw it away,” Williams said.
Even the most powerful woman in sports recognizes the pressures of working while pregnant. But to win a championship, she knew she had to persist, no matter what condition she was in.
“Every tournament where I show up, I’m expected to win. If I don’t win, it’s actually bigger news.”
How to accommodate pregnant workers
By speaking publicly about the difficulties of working while pregnant, Williams is raising awareness about an experience that is not being openly discussed enough: pregnancy can be hard.
82% of working women will continue to work through their pregnancy up until one month of the birth, but the nausea and common side effects of pregnancy too often get minimized. No one wants to come off as less productive to their employers. But that means not asking your boss for help when you most need it.
Miscarriages are even harder to understand for many
Pregnant workers are minimized by our society that doesn’t respect the experience as difficult. Women often don’t even tell their friends, let alone their co-workers, about their early pregnancies out of fear that to do so, may jinx themselves if the pregnancy becomes a miscarriage.
And miscarriages are even less understood at work than pregnancy, surveys have shown; while miscarriages are a huge loss and require grieving, many people don’t understand how hard they are, or may be at a loss for what to say.
Andrew Horn explained why he and his famous partner Miki Agrawal chose to go against this advice and tell people when she was only four weeks into her pregnancy: to reduce the shame around the possibility of a miscarriage.
Horn said that “our culture doesn’t allow for an open dialogue around miscarriage and it leads to isolation and a unfair shame being placed on women.”
Pregnancy is physically difficult
Other women are going forward about their experiences. Avra Siegel, the Director of Public Policy and Strategic Partnerships at Care.com., decided to reveal the “brutal truth” about being a pregnant worker for Fortune. Spoiler: it’s “pretty awful.”
She explained how she would arrange meetings around her daily nausea during her pregnancy. Other physical effects of pregnancy: back pain, swollen feet, and a general tiredness. Coworkers may not understand how physically taxing it can be, especially if the mother-to-be seems highly active or is trying to hide the impact. (Of course, for some women, pregnancy is a cinch — it depends on the woman and her health.)
How to help pregnant employees work better
Siegel suggested that easy, low-cost fixes to workplaces could include “flexible work arrangements such as teleworking, flexible start-stop times, and even the new rage of nap-rooms.”
Above all, Siegel said maintaining open communication with her higher-ups fostered a culture of trust that could help women beyond her: “each and every time you tell your manager how you are feeling, you empower other women to do the same. This single action gives confidence and credence to those around you and helps to change the workplace culture from the ground up.”
That’s the power we all gain each time a powerful woman like Williams comes forward and reveals the human behind the superwoman we publicly see: to reduce the stigma around pregnancy as something that could hold you back at work.
As Williams proved, you can still achieve on the most scrutinized of stages while pregnant.
“I definitely plan on coming back — I’m not done yet,” Williams said about her plans to continue playing tennis after motherhood. She expects that next year her “baby’s going to be in the stands and hopefully cheering for me.”