Pregnancy is a paradox: an intimately personal experience that is also inescapably public. From fighting nausea to strategically concealing a growing bump, many expectant moms have dealt with the uniquely trying stress of hiding pregnancy symptoms (or even an entire pregnancy) in the workplace.

Then came the pandemic. Zoom meetings concealed pregnancy from the neck down and pregnant people were able to deal with any side effects in the comfort of their own homes.

Now, even as in-office mandates take effect, there’s no going back to the “before times,” says Tami Forman, the founding Chief Executive of Path Forward, a nonprofit that empowers stay-at-home mothers to restart their careers. “It’s harder for companies to say that a job can’t be done remotely, full stop,” says Forman, adding that the “always here, always on” ethos has fallen out of favor.

Companies — and the country — are finally moving forward as it pertains to supporting the specific needs of pregnant people in the workplace. Recent legislation offering greater protections for pregnant workers, combined with greater transparency in the wake of the pandemic, has opened the door to begin to finally acknowledge that pregnancy comes with special needs. As employers navigate new policies, now is the time to not only physically accommodate pregnant employees, but also ensure their psychological safety.

What to Know About the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act

When Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) over four decades ago, it helped protect people with the capacity for pregnancy by making it illegal to take pregnancy into consideration when making decisions about hiring, firing, and promotions. The PDA was a start, but it left major gaps in enabling pregnant and postpartum workers to be supported when on the job.

Now, two pieces of landmark legislation are poised to fill those gaps. The first, The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) will ensure that pregnant people are granted temporary and reasonable accommodations without facing retaliation in the workplace. The PWFA, which goes into effect in June of 2023, guarantees duty breaks, modified work schedules, and job reassignments or adjustments when necessary in order to make it illegal for employers to deny these and other necessary accommodations.

Next, the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act guarantees protections for postpartum employees who need to express breast milk. By ensuring ample break time and a private place to pump at work, the PUMP Act provides much-needed flexibility and safety for nursing parents.

Together, the PWFA and the PUMP Act will also help combat persistent stereotypes about work and pregnancy. Though nearly 2.8 million pregnant women (in 2022, that was 70% of all pregnant women) work while pregnant; judgment about a woman’s competency during pregnancy is widespread. Expectant parents have led countries and run marathons, and still their abilities and commitment are questioned. In Chief and IBM’s Women in Leadership report, just 40% of surveyed male managers believe women with children are as dedicated to their jobs as women without.

And people in low-wage positions are disproportionately impacted by pregnancy bias as they often must contend with friction between the physical demands of pregnancy and the physical requirements of their job. A 2022 report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 1 in 4 mothers have considered leaving an employer out of fear they wouldn’t be accommodated or they’d be discriminated against while pregnant.

Given the lack of a national paid family and medical leave policy in the United States, pregnant and postpartum employees have long been in dire need of these protections. With new laws on the books, it’s up to employers to properly implement and enforce them.

It’s Up to Employers to Make the Laws a Reality

The laws don’t go into effect until June, so employers should prepare now to fill in any gaps. Set up the private breastfeeding rooms, the break policies and flexible schedules, and adjust any operational workflows that need to happen as a response. Then train and educate managers so that they understand employee rights and what resources are available to them.

“A lot of leaders want to be supportive of [pregnant] people, but they don’t think it through. What does an accommodation mean for the rest of the team? What does it mean for the person who manages that team, and what resources are you going to make available? If you want people to feel safe using these policies [around pregnancy], then you have to be promoting them,” says Forman.

“When I’m working with [pregnant] clients, we have a lot of conversations around fear of what management is going to say. Women understandably feel afraid to acknowledge limitations unless they feel really safe,” says clinical psychologist and Founder of The Centered Space Heidi Cox, who adds that concerns around safety are amplified during pregnancy due to hormone surges in the brain.

If employees don’t feel safe, they may hesitate to ask for the accommodations they require. Reticence may suggest that pregnant employees fear being penalized just for asking for accommodations. Perhaps employees have experienced workplace trauma or observed co-workers make requests and face negative consequences. Forman put it bluntly: “If you don’t have a culture where people feel like they can be forthcoming, they’re not going to be forthcoming.”

Leaders should avoid assumptions and predictions, and instead focus on fostering transparency so that employees feel comfortable clearly communicating their needs. “Leaders talking about having children, having personal time, promoting self-care, or setting boundaries sets the tone,” says Cox.

Giving pregnant people a safe space also requires giving them the benefit of the doubt. They’re not going to express their needs if they feel burdened to provide lengthy explanations about their physical condition.

“You can ask for what you need without having to share private information with your employer,” adds Forman. “I think we need to be careful that we treat adults like adults, and if somebody says they need something, we believe them.”