Interpersonal Punishments and Rewards Tell Pregnant Women: Shop, Don’t Work
Pregnant women have a special status, but “special” is not necessarily good, particularly when it comes to the workplace. In a fascinating exploration of the Theory of Ambivalent Sexism, Hebl and her colleagues examined how pregnant women are treated differentially from non-pregnant women in two kinds of settings: one consistent with a sexist view of the “proper”, or more traditional role for women (e.g. shopping), and one inconsistent with that view (e.g. employment in a traditionally masculine job). The short answer to their questions is this: through a series of subtle manifestations of sexism, pregnant women are more likely than non-pregnant women to be treated rudely and evaluated harshly as job applicants, and are more likely to be treated in an overly benevolent, even patronizing way than nonpregnant women when shopping.
It seems that pregnancy, as the purest and most visible marker of a woman’s traditional role, that is childbearing, activates our attention to the fact of her womanliness, and makes her more likely to be a target of our sexist attitudes and behaviors. The sexism cuts both ways. When a woman is engaged in a traditional role-appropriate behavior such as shopping, people are more likely to touch and engage in other aspects of over friendliness (such as patronizing smiling, eye contact, nodding, helpfulness) toward pregnant versus nonpregnant customers. On the other hand, when a woman is challenging those traditional notions of role-appropriate behavior for women by applying for or working in traditionally masculine jobs, pregnant women are significantly more likely to be the object of discrimination, both formal and informal, than are pregnant women. Formal discrimination shows up in a number of ways, including a decreased likelihood of job offers. Informal discrimination was manifested in a variety of rude behaviors, including hostility, anxiousness, staring, and furrowed brows.
Thus, it seems, that while these subtle manifestations of sexism are not universal, there are enough instances of these manifestations that it is reasonable to conclude that there exists a sort of a “carrot-and-stick” system of interpersonal rewards and punishments that seems designed to steer pregnant women away from employment and toward their more traditionally “proper” role in society.
(From “Hostile and Benevolent Reactions Toward Pregnant Women: Complementary Interpersonal Punishments And Awards That Maintain Traditional Roles,” (2007), by Hebl, King, Glick, Singletary, and Kazama, JAP 92(6), 1499-1511).