No more holding the baby: what being pregnant and starting a new job taught me about equity and inclusion in business today

By leaning into uncomfortable conversations and approaching them with an expectation of being treated fairly, we can help our businesses move forward. A view from Sagina Shabaya, head of inclusion, diversity & belonging for EMEA at OLIVER.

Sagina working at her desk

According to the World Economic Forum, the pandemic has set gender equity back 25 years. Workplaces must now work harder to inspire intense inclusion acceleration and turn our equity challenges into positive change.

My thirst for this change led me to accept headhunter interviews during lockdown – and while heavily pregnant.

By January 2021, I had started my dream role as head of inclusion, diversity and belonging for EMEA at Oliver.

By March (aptly, Women’s History Month) I was leaving to start maternity leave.

And guess what?

It’s okay.

In fact, it’s more than okay.

For me, it represented a positive leap forward for mothers, for women and for every business that talks about – and wants to achieve – total inclusion.

Deception or a test of true equity and inclusion for employers?

I was warned by friends and past colleagues of being put on the recruitment naughty list if I were to take a job while pregnant. (“Never would I be hired again!”)

Others encouraged deception, telling me to sign the contract, get through the door, then notify my employer about the baby. (“The business would be forced to keep me.”)

What drives such behaviour at a time when we’re talking about achieving true equity and inclusion in our workplaces?

Well, historically, “baby” has perhaps subconsciously translated to “risk factor” for women at work. A government Equality & Human Rights study found that some mothers didn’t look for work while pregnant because they “felt businesses would be unwilling to employ pregnant women”.

Staggeringly, 77% of mothers who were unsuccessful in their job interviews, where the employer knew they were pregnant, felt that their pregnancy had affected their chances of success. Three in four mothers said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on their return to work.

This tells us that many businesses still feel negatively disrupted by pregnant women, not adequately set up to support them. More worryingly, it suggests that many pregnant women actually rule themselves out of the running for jobs before they even apply.

Levelling the pregnancy playing field

The beauty of our locked-down worlds is that the playing field was finally levelled between expectant men and expectant women. And this is all thanks to Zoom.

With Zoom, I could interview as if I were not pregnant. My interviewers got to talk to me without being distracted – or indeed, potentially deterred – by the rather large bump sitting beneath the status bar. And I didn’t have to try to squeeze Baby #2 into some tight pregnancy pants or hide him/her under a baggy jumper. (Sadly, most pregnant career women can probably remember doing this.)

As a diversity and inclusion practitioner, I’ve never felt like I needed to compromise a career for family or vice versa, believing that women should be wholly authentic in work today – warts (or indeed, bumps) and all. Yet, I’d never before had to consider what it would be like to potentially interview as “the pregnant one” rather than as Sagina.

It has made me think deeply about why this nervousness and disparity really exists. It’s true that, on a genetic level, men don’t treat babies as a career “pause” in the same way that women might; men don’t need to plan for physically giving birth (recovery from labour, breastfeeding…), neither do they show visible signs of expecting a child (a large belly, swollen ankles or the look of constant discomfort).

This isn’t a man-versus-women thing. It’s an important consideration, and hopefully a lesson in inclusive recruiting. Women do experience pregnancy differently, because they have to. But this doesn’t mean they should be treated differently at any stage of the recruitment process, or indeed any stage of their careers.

There’s always a solution

Oliver offered me the job knowing that I would soon need to take time out. My now boss, Amina Folarin, and I were transparent with our situations and I respected that my pregnancy might not fit into Oliver’s plans at this time. But, despite my hesitations, never once did our conversation depart the question, “how can we make this work?”

It’s all about finding the right work-life blend for your talent today. Especially after the year we’ve all just lived through and particularly for women, who are probably dreading having “the baby chat” at any stage in their career.

From this experience, we can take the following lessons with us:

Zoom interviews are a positive step for female equity until there really is truly an unbiased view of pregnancy.

Embrace them.

Women: ask for what you want and need.

We have to get better at this. What usually feels like risky territory for us, is breezy for employers that walk the inclusivity talk. Just. Ask.

Not all women want to take a year off to have a baby. Don’t assume that they do.

With my first child, I knew after nine months that I was ready to get back into things. I’m planning on feeling the same in nine months’ time again. Maternity is rarely the free ride that it’s negatively portrayed to be by the system. Most women want to continue with their career as soon as they can. Employers, support them.

There’s a lot women can do to contribute to the business while on maternity leave.

For women with kids, you’ll know that finding stimulation beyond Peppa Pig is crucial. Most businesses now offer Keeping In Touch Days to help women re-engage with their roles, their teams and the business while on maternity leave. I like using these days to see what mini projects I can get cracking on with in the background, even if it’s just researching solutions in my down time or keeping abreast of trends.

Having a three-step plan minimises any potential maternity disruption – and, in fact, proves that nothing needs to pause for either party. Rather than see the lead-up to maternity leave as wind-down time, take this opportunity to ramp things up with the team and get organised so that the maternity leave can really work for the business. (And new mums, who ultimately need to be able to relax when their babies arrive.)

Stage one: determine what’s needed before going on maternity leave. I let the team extrapolate every piece of knowledge out of me so that they could lead our strategy wholeheartedly while I’m away. This helped set the ambition and the agenda, ensuring total continuity.
Stage two: determine what’s needed while on maternity leave. Small, achievable goals are key, as well as a big goal of what the team is working towards in the timeframe. Then, use KITDs to support the team’s delivery before returning.
Stage three: determine what needs to be in place when you return. Have a definitive expectation for the team, and a plan for being re-introduced back into the role.

Pregnancy highlights inclusion in action. Rise up, or lose out on female talent

There never feels like the right time to share pregnancy news with an employer that hasn’t fully realised its inclusion policies. By leaning into uncomfortable conversations and approaching them with an expectation of being treated fairly, we’re actually helping our businesses move forward. For businesses dedicated to change and equity in 2021, women can help them set a new inclusion standard.

It feels risky, but it doesn’t need to any more. I was expecting the worst possible outcome because that’s what we’ve learned to do as women. But I got the best possible outcome I could have imagined.

You can too.

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