Some businesses have normalised parenthood at work, offering more generous parental leave, shared leave and flexible working. But in many workplaces, caregivers — particularly women — are forced to hide their childcare obligations and downplay the demands of being a parent, to avoid falling victim to stigma and biases that hold them back.
In 2019, economist Emily Oster shed light on the problem in an article for The Atlantic. Women she spoke to told her they had hidden their pregnancies until the third trimester, and wore loose clothing to conceal their bump. Once they had kids, they didn’t mention them at work.
COVID-19 has dramatically transformed the way we work, especially for parents. With many of us working from home, our colleagues and bosses have a direct insight into our lives — including our roles as caregivers. So will this change the way we think about parenthood at work?
“Secret parenting is the epitome of the phrase ‘women need to work like they don’t have children, and mother like they don’t work’,” says business and career coach Clara Wilcox, founder of The Balance Collective.
“While this isn’t unique to mothers, it is common and is often encouraged through microaggressions at work, company culture and the real fear that opportunities will be withdrawn because of the assumptions around ability, commitment and motivation once a person becomes a parent.”
Secret parenting isn’t just about keeping quiet about your children at work. Research shows that some women hide their pregnancies, especially in male-dominated industries. Another study reveals how women go above and beyond at work, risking their mental wellbeing with stress and burnout, in order to prove their worth while pregnant.
According to a survey of 2,000 women by Slater and Gordon, one in three breastfeeding mums have been forced to use the toilet at work to express milk. More than half have had to pump in an unsuitable place — including the staff room, their car, or at their desk. As a result, nearly a third of respondents said they have experienced problems while trying to express, including issues with their supply, infections, and anxiety.
The pressure to keep up “appearances” at work while pregnant can be intense. In a 2015 paper, 80% of the women interviewed were concerned that their professional image or other people’s perceptions of their competence and character would be damaged at work due to their pregnancy.
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Worryingly, research shows these fears aren’t unfounded. Three-quarters of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination at work and one in nine lose their job as a result, government-commissioned research found in 2016.
“For too many years, there has been an unnecessary stigma around admitting you are a working parent,” says Nichola Johnson-Marshall, career coach and co-founder of Working Wonder. “Especially for working mums, there has been a number of biases attached to it by others such as they are no longer dedicated to their role, their career, and that due to caring for their child it means they can’t give 100% at work.
“As a working parent myself and having managed and worked alongside many others in my career, I would say the opposite is true,” she adds. “Working parents are so hardworking, productive and motivated as are often fuelled by wanting to do well in their career to provide for their family and to be a positive role model.”
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Although COVID-19 has posed even more challenges for working parents, it has also made the issue of juggling work and childcare more visible. It’s almost impossible for parents to hide their responsibilities, particularly when connecting with co-workers on Zoom (ZM).
“The pandemic has forced the physical and metaphorical wall down between home and work - so many parents are now working where they live,” Wilcox says. “It’s common for children to walk into a call or be working on their schoolwork next to their parent. However, this is only the first step to ending secret parenting.
“Now, we have a situation when the parenting is public, but often it is parents seeking forgiveness when the organisations aren’t supportive of the ongoing responsibilities.”
In fact, childcare being more evident could simply reinforce negative attitudes toward caring responsibilities. Last year, research by the charity Working Families found that one in five working parents in the UK — around 2.6 million parents in total - feel they have been treated less fairly at work because of their childcare responsibilities since the onset of COVID-19. Mothers and part-time workers said they had been particularly affected.
“Employers need to encourage public parenting, but also start putting the wellbeing of their staff at the centre,” Wilcox says. “They need to encourage and value life outside of work, have output-based key performance indicators rather than reward presentism, and have a proactive diversity and inclusivity strategy and support the parents back to work through coaching and mentoring support.”