This is what pregnancy in the workplace looks like

Pregnant employees are an increasingly common sight in the workplace as more pregnant workers stay in the office until the last weeks of their term. While only 44% of women worked full-time during their pregnancies during the 1960s, the number of women working while pregnant has jumped up to almost 66% by 2008, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.

The majority of pregnant employees today are making the choice to stay working, but as a photo series argues, the images of pregnant employees have not caught up to this reality. From 2009 to 2012, the organization Game Face, now-called Working Assumptions, found that photographs of pregnant people were missing from stock photos. You were more likely to see the focus on their unborn child in polished birth announcements and bump photos. The number of workers going about their day while pregnant was unseen.

The “Showing: Pregnancy in the Workplace” project sought to change this narrative by partnering with photographers across America to document pregnant employees at work and off-hours. You see pregnant employees in legislatures, schools, operating rooms, offices, outdoors on ranches and in swamps. You see them busy carrying dishes, resting with swollen feet kicked up, tired with hands to faces. These are pregnant workers in their everyday lives, made visible.

Ladders talked to some of the photographers and subjects involved about what these photos can tell us about what it means to be pregnant and working today.

On confronting pregnancy assumptions 

Julie, Professor of Occupational Therapy, Ithaca, New York / 
Andrea Modica, 2012, © Andrea Modica

Julie Dorsey, a professor of occupational therapy in Ithaca, New York, and one of the subjects of the series, said her photo challenges the assumption that having a baby means you are less committed to your job. Dorsey is photographed at the end of her pregnancy after she has completed the milestone of finishing her doctorate. Dressed in striking regalia, she stares back at the camera while holding her belly, barefoot and pregnant. “I think there is an assumption as a faculty member and a scholar that you will become less productive after having a child, that there are going to be demands outside of work that will lessen your commitment to the institution,” she said. “For many people, myself included, my work is an important part of who I am even as a mother.”

Despite federal protection against discrimination, U.S. pregnant employees today still face unfair treatment. Under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers must treat their pregnant employees similarly to other employees, but not necessarily well. Pregnant employees can get their requests for work accommodations denied, putting their health at risk. Their careers can also be jeopardized. After they disclose their pregnancy to bosses, employees can lose their prestigious clients, get excluded from meetings, and get fired for complaining. Federal data shows thousands of women alleging pregnancy discrimination in America. The late Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist called this mindset the view of seeing women as “mothers first, and workers second.”

For Cristiana Ceppas, the photographer of Neyara, a housekeeper, said that the series takes us different places, helping us see all the many ways pregnancy can and cannot impact your ability to do a job. “I think there are people, maybe more men, and some women too, that would think, ‘Oh you’re pregnant, you can’t do anything, but that’s not true,'” she said. “I think that people don’t know sometimes how to treat you. They don’t know if it’s okay or not. There’s a lot of tiptoeing. People are judgmental.”

By showing us the multitudes of ways that people juggle pregnancy and work, the photo series is a visual intervention against this limited perspective.

Neyara, Housekeeper
 / Cristiana Ceppas, 2012, © Cristiana Ceppas

In the photo series, we see women balance the physical demands of their job with the added weight of a fetus growing inside them. We do not necessarily know what accommodations these workers have been given, but we can see how pregnancy puts these workers’ bodies on public display. The series asks us to confront our expectations and values around pregnant people working. ‘How long has this healthcare worker been on her feet while taking care of other people?’ I wondered. ‘How many of these workers have maternity leave and for how long?’ 

During her pregnancy, Dorsey said she needed to change footwear to Ugg boots at work to accommodate her body’s changes. Those are the kind unseen challenges workers can face. “That physical challenge is really incredible in terms of how [pregnant employees] may perhaps need to accommodate and find places to sit —or not, if they don’t have supportive employers and what a challenge that can be,” Dorsey said.

Jenn, Elementary School Teacher / 
Tony Gonzalez, 2012, © Tony Gonzalez

The photo series also shows the quieter, more intimate moments of pregnancy. Tony Gonzalez, one of the photographers who participated in “Showing,” took photos of pregnant employees that contrast their professional obligations with their private routines. In his photos of Jenn, an elementary school teacher, you see her undressed, getting ready for the day, and put together at her job in front of students. “That is an everyday common thing that is not always revealed,” Gonzalez said about the photos. His subjects are not posed for the camera. In his photograph of Meghann, a museum membership officer, she is doing the everyday task of opening a refrigerator.

“This country is really hung up on the glamour to the point I feel can dangerously fetishize pregnancy and make it glamorous,” Gonzalez said, noting that his goal is “to show an alternative view of that, to show that this isn’t set up, highly made-up produced photoshoot, this is real women looking like real women.”

Meghann, Museum Membership Officer
 / Tony Gonzalez, 2012, © Tony Gonzalez